Sunday, February 26, 2012

Solving Looting in Authoritarian Source Countries

The open solution to the problem of looting, smuggling, and getting coins and antiquities studied and published is best exemplified by the Treasure Act and Portable Antiquities scheme. These are common sense compromise solutions where everyone wins more than they lose. But, we are told we need to protect the cultural property in places that aren't so liberal, places that think they own all culture and the right to shape their own history. Rather than ineffectual import restrictions and inane blogs it seems to me the best solution is rather quite simple: Have those countries ban metal detecting. Why not embrace the authoritarian approach and create a solution matching the philosophy of the state. After the first few detectorists are shot looting will quickly cease.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

William E. Metcalf on Coin Hoards and Archaeology

Oxford University Press just released a new book, The Oxford Handbook of Greek and Roman Coinage edited by Professor William E. Metcalf the Curator of Coins and Medals at the Yale University Art Gallery. The book is an interesting overview of the major coinages of the classical world featuring contributions from numerous scholars and citing many more recent (2000's) papers. For the moment I want to focus on the introduction and some comments Professor Metcalf makes regarding hoard and site finds. “Hoards are infrequently found in controlled archaeological contexts, and there is almost always some doubt about the integrity of lots even when they are intrinsically plausible. A dealer will always have the inclination to skim the rarest coins, or those in the freshest condition, because of the commercial premium these demands. And it is no help that institutions are no longer competitive for acquisition of whole lots, on grounds of finance as well as specious ethical arguments.” Many voices have stated that hoards, the source of most coins in auctions and profits, are rarely found in controlled excavations. Here is another voice set against those radical archaeologists who want to paint a picture of tomb raiders with metal detectors plundering archaeological sites. Resorting to such extremes is certainly a tactic in line with those who would make specious ethical arguments to advance their cause.

“Site finds are another matter. Unlike hoards, which can be placed in time with greater or lesser certainty, coins recovered in excavations have no fixed chronology of loss. The very fact that these are lost coins, rather than hoarded ones, defines the nature of the material: ­mostly base metal and generally lower denominations.” This quote merely reinforces the previous one, coins found at controlled excavations are generally not the types that collectors buy and certainly not the ones that drive the majority of profits.

“From the numismatic point of view, the exact locus of the find is seldom critical, and indeed is seldom reported in excavation catalogs.” Here we have some reinforcing evidence that numismatics can function without exact archaeological context, an idea that seems foreign to a few of the radicals out there but one that should make sense to the majority of collectors, dealers, and archaeologists. These quotes summarize several key points made by those seeking a rational approach to heritage preservation, import restrictions, and the ancient coin market: Hoards are rarely found in archaeological sites, coins found at sites are not always found or recorded in detail, and such exact detail or context is not required to advance numismatic study.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Most Ancient Coins are Legal and Undocumented

Paul Barford, an extreme archaeoloist living in Poland has almost arrived at the crux of the matter regarding import restrictions. In several of his recent blog posts one can find some facts amidst the usually denigrating ad hominems that are so endearing.

I wrote, “If reduced demand is the goal then the current import restrictions are insufficient. As I outlined previously most coins being traded today by volume are not covered MOUs.”.

To which Mr. Barford responds, “Well, of course they jolly well ARE covered by the 1970 UNESCO Convention, as well as by US Customs law as well as the National Stolen property Act. “

The National Stolen Property Act covers items over $5000 that can proven to be stolen which is a very minute number of artifacts of any time let alone coins. The US Customs law is only going to deal with those items specified in MOUs and have an implementation order written. Again, this is a minority of all the ancient coins on the market. The UNESCO Convention deals with illicit trade so for Mr. Barford's assertion to be true he must believe that the majority of coins on the market right now are illicit. I believe the majority of coins being traded are in fact licit.

Next Mr. Barford states, “Coins which have that documentation can be imported without hindrance. Coins with no documentation of licit export will not find a way onto the US market.” This is where he seems to have a mental block, most coins being shipped into the US are NOT REQUIRED to have any form of documentation. Thanks to the work of the ACCG existing MOUs cover a minority of coins, those that are covered now do require export certificates. The National Stolen Property's Act and State Law equivalents only apply if the State party can actually prove a theft so under current law most coins are being traded licitly WITHOUT documentation. My point was that if import restrictions were applied to all coins (and they would have to be to actually reduce looting) then all coins could be examined by customs. I don't know why this is such a hard point for Mr. Barford to understand.

In response to my comment, “The biggest problem is that all the existing low value coins from source countries don't have export certificates since it hasn't been necessary and is an extra cost.”

The response comes, “Most certainly such certificates are necessary from most of the source countries concerned. Even the UK. Who told Lueke that they were not? The ACCG legal team?” Here Mr. Barford seems to misunderstand US Customs law. For importing coins into the US export certificates from source countries are only required when there is an MOU in place. In general, what Mr.Barford doesn't seem to understand, is that the 100,000+ coins that trade each year and the millions of coins that exist in collections do not have documentation since it wasn't legally required and would be a nuisance for objects so common and widespread. Since most coins, almost all coins, on the market are legal and do not have documentation there is no way to suddenly require documentation as proof of legality or even ethical collecting. It is just not a practical proposition. Within Europe an explanation of these matter can be seen here .

Monday, February 6, 2012

Why Calling for Effective Import Restrictions on Ancient Coins Means and end to the US Market

Very few proponents of import restrictions on ancient coins come out and say that they are against collecting or that they would like to see collecting ended. Usually these proponents will talk about the need to preserve archaeological sites and information and state they only want to address current looting through import restrictions. While many of the public proponents of restrictions are academic like Nathan Elkins or Carmen Arnold-Buicchi I imagine there is some possibility that they believe such ideas. I understand that art and liberal arts majors often profess little knowledge of math so basic logic may also be a weakness for these folks. Thus, as a public service, I shall attempt to connect the dots step by step as working with computers I am not allowed to escape formal logic.

The basic premise advanced is that import restrictions will help reduce looting in source countries presumably by shrinking the market. At another time I'll revisit this basic premise but today I'll let is stand for arguments sake. If import restrictions could reduce looting the mechanism would need to be reduced demand, lowering prices and causing the looters to stop. One could also make a purely ethical argument, stating that while the restrictions have no real impact that it is nonetheless wrong for collectors to acquire such coins. The UNESCO convention clearly talks about the former case and those the arguments that have been made in front of CPAC so I'll put the ethical argument aside.

If reduced demand is the goal then the current import restrictions are insufficient. As I outlined previously most coins being traded today by volume are not covered MOUs. The current restrictions do impact high end collector coins often found at auction, however those coins are much more likely to have a photographic history predating restrictions. So if the import restrictions in MOUs are to have any effect they would need to extent to all ancient coins especially those found on eBay since most coins the casual metal detectorist will find are the type of low end coins seen on eBay. Those arguing for import restrictions in order to reduce looting must therefore seek those restrictions to cover all coins. Requiring import restrictions on all coins coming into the US from certain countries could, if enforced, end the collecting market of coins coming into the US as any package could be held up if not confiscated making it impossible to profit as a dealer. True it would be a slow death but coins would keep trickling out of the US and without paperwork they would stay in Europe. The biggest problem is that all the existing low value coins from source countries don't have export certificates since it hasn't been necessary and is an extra cost. These coins, in an environment with full restrictions, would also be subject to confiscation since there is no paperwork. That is the biggest issue! If all the coins currently on the market could be distinguished from any new finds then import restrictions could be used effectively. Without this ability the call for effective restrictions is tantamount to calling for an end of the US market. I look forward to hearing proponents of import restrictions actually coming up with a practical methods whereby a drachm in Zurich that was discovered in 1999 can be distinguished from one in 2012.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Carmen Arnold-Biucchi Joins the Radical Archaeologists


Recent summaries of the CPAC meeting regarding the renewal of import restrictions for Cyprus reveal that one of the speakers arguing for continued import restrictions was Professor Carmen Arnold-Biucchi of Harvard. The professor spent 18 years at the ANS before moving to her current job at Harvard curating the numismatic collections there. Based on the first person accounts that have been published her arguments extended to the bronze coinage of Cyprus and low value coins in general. I find it a little odd that a person who works with museum collections built and funded by collectors would side with radical archaeologists who would like to see an end to collecting on the pretext that this would stop criminals from being criminals. Her book, Alexander's Coins and Alexander's Image is filled with image after image of coins donated by collectors or acquired in the open market. In supporting import restrictions with no qualification Arnold-Buicchi joins the list of academics seeking to banish collecting. Now wait, you may say, collecting wouldn't be outlawed just the import of new finds. If it were that simple there would likely be no controversy but what makes this position radical is that it fails to account for a practical solution for all the licit coins on the marketplace that don't come with the type of documentation now sought as proof of legitimacy (export certificates or provenance). This is especially true since collectors in Canada, the EU, and elsewhere would not need the same types of documentation.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Are Radical Archaeologists Dupes of the Government?

In my previous post I laboriously gathered in depth statistics on eBay usage for the ancient coins market. The effort took a little longer than I had anticipated but now I want to draw some observations based on the data at hand. My primary conclusion is that the MOU requests granted by the State Department must be based solely on political considerations rather than the arguments of extreme archaeologists; these archaeologists are at best dupes used as cover for the political agenda. I'll elaborate on that point shortly after discussing the eBay statistics a little longer.

My initial reason to examine eBay was simply to understand the actual market a little better than the numerous people who've used eBay to justify various positions based on anecdotal or superficial sampling. The numbers confirmed what most collectors probably know: eBay is filled mostly with low end coins primarily of the Roman Imperial variety. Higher end coins do show up but usually these are Buy it Now and can and do often remain unsold for many months. My next thought was that if MOUs actually worked eBay could be used to show a before and after picture, a measurement as is common in business and IT. That was when I realized that very, very few coins on eBay actually would be/are covered by any MOU that exists or are likely to exist. Many coins stay in Europe, many are from old collections, and a lot are from countries unlikely to request an MOU such as Germany, the UK, and Spain.

Radical archaeologists claim the primary detriment of collecting licit, undocumented coins (any coins without provenance to 1970 or a valid export certificate that are legal to own) is that when these coins are found information is destroyed. The existing MOUs deal with China, a niche area of collecting in the US, Cyprus, another niche area, and now pre-Republican Italy and Greece proper exempting trade coinages. The coins thus covered by import restrictions are ones considered high end, collector coins often sold at auction and almost always cataloged. Certainly there are new hoards that come to market but this is a relatively rare occurrence as far as I know, a few hoards per year. Plus high end pot hoards are usually not found in places excavated, based on the archaeological reports I have read coins when found are not often what anyone would consider treasure. If the MOUs aren't targeting the majority of coins sold by number, if they don't target the coins archaeologists should be most worried about, then why are they covered? I think it's simply the 21st century version of nationalism. Certain countries seem to feel they should own the relics of their distant past and the US State Department is willing to oblige, likely with some concession coming back to it. If the MOUs are a simple bureaucratic quid pro quo then all the arguments about context and markets are mere fluff and window dressing. Collectors and archaeologist arguing as entertainment but ultimately both completely powerless.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

What can eBay tell us about the Ancient Coin Market (and what it can't)

eBay has been used to demonstrate the scope of the ancient coin market both at SAFE and on numerous occasions in front of the CPAC (Cultural Property Advisory Committee). Oddly the amount of thought that has been put into the numbers has been lacking and I aim to correct this oversight. First, we have to differentiate between every lot on eBay and the actual volume of sales. When I just browse ancient coins I see 27973 lots. This includes Buy it Now lots that can be on for months as well as many lots that do not sell. Therefore active auctions aren't such a good indicator of volume. Sold lots are a much better and easier indicator for the sales volume. Selecting that I get 7043 lots over a two week period. These auctions still contain some replicas but it's a decent ball park. Now we know the volume in the ancient coin category is a bit less than 3500 lots per week.

The main assertion of radical archaeologists is that the hobby of coin collecting contributes significantly towards looting and that collectors can only be truly ethical by insisting that each coins comes with provenance or export certificates. Over time such stringent requirements with no mitigating barrier (such as a $ value) would make collecting quite difficult and expensive if not impossible for most dealers. At any rate, if freshly discovered coins keep appearing on the market can we use eBay to help us identify where these coins are coming from, how they are sold, and where they are bought?

The source of the coins is a tricky matter. I can see that 3373 lots originated in the US. A few hundred more are likely in Canada but the eBay iPad interface allows me to filter on sold coins only while the website allows a search on North America but both are missing the other. Nevertheless, at a high level we can say a little less than 50% of the coins sold are already in the US and a little more than 50% are in North America thus about half the lots could be imports. While some coins sold in the US may have been directly imported by the seller similarly some coins in Europe will stay there, we can't know these numbers. What we can say is that the market on ebay.com is split roughly 50/50 between North America and Europe. When I include other country eBay sites in my search of sold coins. I find 15,296 lots and these are coins that usually don't ship to the US. Taking into account all ebay sites we see the European market is actually larger by a factor of 2:1 or 3:1 in terms of volume. This is not to say the US market is insignificant just that it isn't the biggest.

Still we have about 1750 ancient coin lots per week sold in the US and some of those are probably imported recently and some of the lots outside the US probably found owners inside the US. Going back to the 7043 lots sold in two weeks on eBay.com globally 6361 or 90% are coins under $100, 5512 or 78% are under $50. Most of the lots, not surprisingly, are Roman Imperial which is the series with the largest amount of junk coins. Since Roman Imperial junkers are ultra common and not part of any US MOUs, though some would be claimed as Italian patrimony, one wonders if they can really be considered cultural property at all. These coins certainly wouldn't be found in any museum and they are unlikely to be making any looters rich.