CONTROVERSY OF ANCIENT COIN COLLECTING AND TRAFFICKING
By Jess W. Kilgore
I think itís appropriate to begin with a few words on why Iíve found my collecting focus to be ancients or more specifically Roman coins. For about 18 years, Iíve had a deep fascination with Roman history and for many years before that in archaeology. For me, the older the coin the better. Itís very interesting to me that countless proud images of a Roman emperor have lain undisturbed in the ground to escape an onrushing barbarian horde or worse yet, a tax-collector. I look for unbroken, clear Latin inscriptions rather than the Greek used by Eastern provinces which surround fine portraits and images that rival modern coins in their artistic merit. Latin inscriptions that clearly reflect the origins of the English language and many othersÖ images of buildings that still stand todayÖ images of soldiers standing in stiff rank holding standards like armies in parade todayÖ. Images of gods and goddesses that were once honored with grand temples and mighty columns that we can see reflected around us in U.S. monuments and buildings such as the Lincoln Memorial or Monticello.
Ancient coins can be found readily in many coin shops and coin shows in the United States and therefore many find their way to our auction table most months. However, ancient coin collecting is a controversial topic that has been hotly debated. For many archaeologists, museum administrators and politicians, ancient coin collecting is a loss to a nationís heritage, history and the field of archaeology. One frustrated archaeologist writes of a site on a Turkish ridge-top within ancient Lycia, where an unnamed town once stood. The site is too remote to be guarded and has been pored over by treasure hunters with illegal metal detectors. The archaeologist had counted 129 looting pits at the time of his writing and stated he knew that whatever coins were found were trafficked to Western collectorís hands. Numismatists have seriously fought to preserve ancient coin collecting as a hobby, but in some countries the fight has been futile. How does Italy feel about collecting of the coins issued by itís legendary empire? In the 1939 Act of the Custody of Artistic and Historic Objects, all coins found in Italy dating before 1500 are considered to be State property and must be reported to the Superintendent of the Arts. Whole regions of Italy such as Sicily, Lazio, Tuscany and Calabria are off limits to metal detecting. In Turkey, the 1973 Antiquities Act declares many objects including ancient coins to be property of the State, though a reward system does exist for discoveries. However to get a reward you should convince authorities that the coin discovery was accidental because treasure hunting is forbidden and those caught can be imprisoned for 2-5 years. Israel also is extremely strict. Anyone found searching for antiquities, even on private property, is liable to be imprisoned for a term of 3 years. French law allows metal detecting, but is extremely restrictive on itís use, making it very difficult to discover coins.
Munich, Germany and London, England are known as trafficking centers for ancient coins. Both countries have guidelines to follow concerning the discovery of ancient coins, but are likely to turn a blind eye to the collecting crowd. Britain in particular has an extremely strong metal detecting lobbying presence that very vocally counters attempts by itís government to place restrictions on their hobby. Germany will reward 50% of a hordeís value if found on public land and 100% of value if found on private land. Though their law states discovered coins should be turned in to the State, a blind eye is paid toward collectors.
US code under title 19, Chapter 14, Section 2601 states that archaeological finds over 250 years old can be claimed by a nation who can prove itís origin in their country and prove itís cultural significance to their country. However the US, like a number of wealthy countries who harbor the most ancient coin collectors has been loathe to restrict the hobby. Intenational treaties such as the 1970 UNESCO Convention on The Means of Prohibiting and Preventing Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property have attempted to compel governments to enter into agreements to enforce each otherís cultural property laws. "Cultural property" is broadly defined under this convention as "property which , on religious or secular grounds, is specifically designated by each state as being of importance for archaeology, pre-history, history, literature, art or science" and falls into a number of broad categories, one of which is ancient coins. The 1995 UNIDROIT Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects focuses on the role of courts in controlling illicit traffic in cultural property. In particular, it mandates the return of illegally exported cultural objects to the country of origin treating them as if they were stolen. Countries most likely to import artifacts have either refused to ratify these instruments or have only agreed to their provisions on a restricted basis. The US has adopted a watered-down version of the 1970 UNESCO Convention and US delegates refused to sign any provision of the 1995 UNIDROIT Convention. Italy attempted in recent years to enact the 1970 Convention and gain United States Cultural Advisory Committee cooperation in banning antiquity imports from their country, including ancient coins, but the US refused.
It has proved to be almost impossible for countries such as Italy and Turkey to retrieve ancient coins from countries they have been illicitly exported to. An exception was the case of Turkey vs. OKS Partners, which resulted in 1999 with the return of the "Emali horde" consisting of over 1,600 silver coins dating to about 453 BC. Fourteen of the coins were decadrachms in mint condition, of which only 27 total are known to exist. One such decadrachm sold for $300,000 in 1974. The coins had been buried in a earthen jug near Emali, Turkey and found in 1984 by a Turkish prospector with a metal detector. For 10 years, Turkey fought to get the coins back from the American corporation who bought them from a trafficker in Munich and finally they were turned in to the Turkish embassy just 4 days before a Turkish trial was set to start.
But this was a rare concerted attempt by a country to have coins seized. The first hurdle for these countries is the fact that ancient coins are quite common. Roman coins for example were struck in 24 mint cities, literally reflecting every corner of the vast empire. From London to Barcelona, Milan to Sofia, Carthage to IstanbulÖ millions and millions of well-struck copper, bronze, silver and gold coins were hammered by hand and delivered into circulation to eventually be lost or purposefully buried by ancient citizens of this incredibly advanced civilization. 365 million silver coins were minted by the 3rd centuryÖ such as this silver antoninianus of Trajan Decius Iíll pass around. To put this in perspective, US mintage of dimes did not reach this quantity until 1962.
Another difficulty for disputing countries is the problem of proving an ancient coin to be cultural patrimony of any one modern nation state. Even if the coin was mint marked within a city of your country, to say that this particular coin is an important part of your countries cultural patrimony seems ludicrous when you consider how vast the Roman Empire was, encompassing much of Europe and the Middle East. Also it is impossible in most cases to assign "provenance" to a particular ancient coin, to give it the historical record that proves it was excavated in your country. A leading numismatist and archaeologist, Martin Beckman, has cited estimates that 80% of all ancient coins on the market today were dug up within the last 30 years. To distinguish these coins on the market with the countless number of coins traded since the Renaissance would be impossible. True coins with "provenance" were in the trays of famous numismatists and not affordable to the average collector.
Last July a significant victory was won by the island nation Cyprus when it succeeding in having the U.S. State Dept. impose restrictions on importation of ancient coins "of Cypriot types" issued before 330 AD. Cyprus accomplished this by implementing the 1970 UNESCO Convention authorizing import restrictions on artifacts that are "found in the ground" of a specific country. So Cyprus convinced the U.S. authorities that Cypriot ancient coins can only be found in Cyprus, but there has been evidence according to the ancient collecting lobby to prove otherwise.
Recently there has been quite a nasty debate between archaeologists such as Nathan Elkins with the University of Missouri and ancient coin lobby leaders such as Wayne Sayles, editor of "The Celator". Elkins says that when coins enter the market through suspect means Ė without provenance, without archaeological context Ė all useful information regarding its find circumstances are lost and part of history is irrevocably destroyed. Dr. Fleur Kemmers gives an example of how ancient coins help greatly to add to understanding the history of a site. Quadrants are very small copper Roman coins (64 of these to a silver denarius). An excavation in a Roman legionary fortress in the Netherlands yielded over 300 of these coins scattered about singly and not as a horde, all of the same exact type. A study of the associated finds showed that the quadrantes had arrived at the fortress en block, shortly after their time of minting in Rome. In this way it was possible to reconstruct a special consignment of coins to a legion posted in a frontier province, at the same time revealing a need for and use of the smallest denomination of coin possible, a clear indication of a monetized economy. Conclusions and insights Dr. Kemmers feels would have never been achieved had the coins been illegally dug up and sold seperately. Wayne Sayles states that the numismatics hobby has existed long before the field of archaeology and adds immeasurably to the understanding and appreciation of history. Many archaeologists believe the only ancient coins that should be collected are those with clearly documented provenance. But the ancients lobby asserts that its unrealistic to carry on collecting only coins with provenance as they are very hard to find and are much more expensive than other coins of the same type when they are found.
Should you or I worry about the future of ancient coin collecting and that the avenues for illicit coin trafficking stay open? I would say no. It is too immensely impractical for a foreign government to try to track ancient coins to a specific point of sale and prove cultural patrimony over it, then seek legal redress. Archaeologists must see in the end that it is completely unrealistic to expect ancient coin collectors to only purchase coins with provenance when such coins are so rare and expensive. However I think itís important that important archaeological sites should be locations protected from looters of any kind. The hobby of collecting ancient coins allows the average person to own a piece of our past that brings us closer to understanding the beginning of our civilization.