Sunday, April 19, 2015

"Illicit" vs. "Illegal"

In an update to his reaction to my updated post on 
"Islamic State" Terrorists and the Antiquities Market , archaeoblogger Paul Barford took exception to this remark: Readers are cautioned that "illicit" is Barfordian doublespeak for "undocumented" or "unprovenanced." It does not mean "illegal."

There followed a stupefying lecture upon use of the word "illicit" -- whose plain English meaning is "forbidden," but which does have a somewhat different definition from that of "illegal." That is well illustrated here .

Mr. Barford apparently views posts in our respective blogs as constituting a sort of debate, and chides me for "not following the rules" by "dodging the issues" in a manner which is responsible "for the current state of the heritage debate."

I don't consider blog posts as being contributions to "the heritage debate." There is no such debate, except perhaps in Mr. Barford's mind, where many other uniquities reside. 

There are instead the unpleasant realities of what is taking place in the world today, and how they affect the interests of ancient coin collectors (and the professional numismatists and auction firms which supply them). That is the subject of this blog. It is written not for archaeobloggers, but for collectors.

Collectors need clear, understandable guidance regarding what they are (and are not) allowed to acquire. They will never get anything resembling that from  Mr. Barford, or others in the archaeological blogosphere. 

Thus in this blog the words "illicit" and "illegal" are used in a practically significant sense, instead of attempting to preserve every tortuous nuance of international conventions, foreign heritage laws and their various interactions and interpretations. 

Illegal - in this blog - means "in violation of the laws of the United States."
Illicit - in this blog - is used in its Barfordian sense as meaning "unprovenanced, or undocumented."

Collecting unprovenanced, undocumented ancient coins is the norm in the United States, as it is (and has been for centuries) in Europe and the UK. Much has been said here, and elsewhere, regarding the costs of documenting provenance and the consequently very small proportion of coins which have a documented provenance. Suffice it to say that if collectors were only allowed to acquire numismatic specimens with a provenance sufficient to satisfy Mr. Barford and his ilk, it would very soon be impossible to continue collecting ancient coins because the supply of such rarities would be exhausted.

Fortunately for collectors, it is not illegal to collect coins that Mr. Barford, and others in the archaeological blogosphere, would describe as being illicit

The key issue involved is the concept of coins being "innocent until proven guilty." That is, in fact, the law in the United States. However Mr. Barford and his ilk see it the other way round - coins (and all other antiquities) are regarded by them as being illicit unless proven to be licit by valid provenance documentation.

There is actually a rather significant difference between this interpretation, and the usage of illicit in the 1970 UNESCO Convention. Article 3 thereof defines illicit thus:
"The import, export or transfer of ownership of cultural property effected contrary to the provisions adopted under this Convention by the States Parties thereto, shall be illicit."

In other words, an illicit coin is one which has been imported, exported or sold in violation of the provisions of the Convention. Nothing in the Convention states or implies that a coin is illicit if it does not have provenance documentation. 

Friday, April 17, 2015

"Islamic State" Terrorists and the Antiquities Market

The London Times reports that ISIS terrorists are stripping controlled areas in Syria of salable antiquities and surreptitiously selling them either directly to collectors, or into the Western art market. See

In an interesting follow-on article, How ISIS created a terrorist art market , Michael Raggi provides informed commentary on the possibility that recent widely publicized video releases purporting to show jihadists destroying "priceless" ancient statues depict, in fact, only the destruction of unsalable museum copies of artifacts that had previously been moved to other locations. Destruction of monuments such as the Nineveh winged bulls was, however, genuine - such monuments have no market value.

Raggi's observations that "The ISIS brand intends to cultivate the image of a barbarian horde seeking to establish a Caliphate that will eviscerate all Arabic culture and iconography predating Islam ..." and "The pattern that emerges in this episode of cultural genocide is that ISIS is destroying only the art that is deemed to be unsaleable in the international art market ... " ring true.

Is this brutal, destructive on-camera cultural barbarism really a cynical marketing ploy aimed at creating and exploiting a presence in the international antiquities market?

Raggi and the Times present an appalling picture of  how this terrorist organization may be exploiting the "legitimate first world art market" by taking advantage of its traditional reliance upon confidence in long-established sources and personal connections, and a centuries-old tradition of anonymous sales by collectors unwilling to publicly disclose their divestitures for personal, security or financial reasons. 

It is time for Western collectors, especially US collectors, to realize that this situation is a direct and very dangerous threat to their interests. In particular, ancient coin collectors should be alarmed because governmental efforts to prevent (or at least control) such trafficking in "blood antiquities" will almost certainly lay a heavy and indiscriminate hand on the antiquities market, which includes ancient coins.

The ISIS terrorists are unlikely to be taking much (if any) interest in coins, as they are of small value compared to "art objects." The archaeology lobby however is enthusiastically championing the notion that "collection-driven exploitation" of "archaeological sites" must be prevented by restricting the importation of ancient coins into the USA. This is based upon ideological aversion to private collecting, not upon actual evidence that coin-hunters are in fact damaging archaeological sites to any noticeable extent.

There is so far no indication of any recent abnormal influx of ancient coins from ISIS controlled areas into the numismatic market. Collectors and dealers should exercise due diligence, prudent restraint and caution in considering acquisition of coins struck in, or known to have circulated in, Syria and Mesopotamia. Be certain that such acquisitions do not include anything not verifiably traceable to a collection or dealer stock prior to August 2011, when the ISI became active in the Syrian insurgency.

UPDATE 4/17/2013

One might think that there would be very little (if anything) in the above remarks to which a reasonable and responsible advocate of preserving cultural heritage could take exception.

That however did not preclude Varsovian former archaeologist Paul Barford from having his own inimitable "last word" on the subject: The Coin Dealer and Body Bags .

"So the sales of antiquities by militants fighting the US-led invasion from 2003 onwards do not concern collectors? The sales that allowed the purchase of weapons and munitions which led to the death of member of the anti-Saddam coalition? The sales that led to young men going home in body bags? This does not concern Dealer Dave, who is apparently only interested in erosion of profits through attempts to fight ISIL?"

Here Barford asserts that it's not acceptable (according to his perspective) to recommend due diligence, prudence and caution in order to prevent possibly becoming involved in acquisition of anything that may have passed through the hands of ISIS or its confederates. Why? Because that doesn't go far enough. It is apparently wrong, in his view, to take only one step in the "right" direction.

Now had I instead advocated exercising due diligence, prudence and caution in order to prevent possibly becoming involved in acquisition of anything that may have passed through the hands of "militants fighting the US-led invasion from 2003 onwards, including ISIS after August 2011," that would not be "correct" either because "The legislation deciding licit and illicit antiquities in both Syria and Iraq goes back a good deal beyond "August 2011". In Syria, to be precise at least 1963, and Iraq  back to 1936. Anything brought into any "old collection" after those dates without the proper release documentation are illicit antiquities."

Readers are cautioned that "illicit" is Barfordian doublespeak for "undocumented" or "unprovenanced." It does not mean "illegal." Since only a few per cent of ancient coins available for acquisition are "provenanced," that means nearly all ancient coins in private hands are "illicit" even though it is perfectly legal to acquire, own, collect and sell them. 


Thursday, March 26, 2015

Italian MOU Comment Recap

For detailed breakdowns see Peter Tompa's blog:

Here are the highlights, and this observer's comments:

1) 94% of Public Comments Were Opposed to Renewal of Italian MOU and/or Restrictions on Coins

Only 15 comments supported MoU renewal without reservations (such as exclusion of coins). These 15 comments should not be discounted because with the exception of David Knell (actor and anti-collecting activist), Paul Barford, and an anonymous contributor (who identified himself as a collector and academic), they came from academics and archaeologists with relevant knowledge and experience:

Leila A. Amineddoleh, Executive Director, Lawyers’ Committee for Cultural Heritage Preservation
Francesco de Angelis, Associate Professor, Roman Art and Archaeology, Columbia University
Fiona Rose-Greenland, Associate Research Director, The Past for Sale project, U. of Chicago
Nancy de Grummond, Professor of Classics, Florida State University
Elizabeth Colantoni, Assistant Professor of Classics, University of Rochester
Gordon Lobay, Senior Consultant, Perrett Laver (executive search firm)
          Associate Scholar, Intellectual Property in Cultural Heritage Project
Jane Evans, Professor of Art History and Classics, Temple University
Kathleen Lynch. Associate Professor, Department of Classics, University of Cincinnati
Clemente Marconi, Professor of Greek Art and Archaeology, Institute of Fine Arts - NYU
Alex W. Barker, Director, Museum of Art and Archaeology, University of Missouri
Kris Lockyear, Faculty Member, Institute of Archaeology, University College London
David W. J. Gill, Professor and Director, Heritage Futures, University Campus Suffolk

In the past the Cultural Heritage Center bureaucracy, under the direction of anti-collecting archaeologist Maria Kouroupas, has given very little evidence of taking appropriate notice of the overwhelming number of public comments objecting to restrictions on ancient coins, and has even disregarded such recommendations from the CPAC. Hopefully on this occasion the views of interested academics and archaeologists (harmonious with those of the CHC bureaucracy) will not again prevail.

Interested collectors would do well to review these comments. The problem of looting of archaeological sites is real, and insights can be gained into what is happening at Italian sites and why archaeologists naturally want everything possible done to discourage looting. However, the one real investigative report (Fiona Rose-Greenland's comment) was rather tentative. Its author believes that the MoU has had an effect toward discouraging looting, however her primary observation was that it has become significantly more difficult for looters to sell their finds into the international antiquities market, and in many cases they are instead keeping them. She notes effective enforcement action by Italian police authorities, and the success of an educational campaign to develop public awareness of the importance of Italy's cultural heritage. These laudable successes may in themselves suffice to explain the observed decrease in looting, and certainly indicate that there is now less reason to believe that emergency measures such as import restrictions are required. Significantly, the author did not differentiate between types of objects sought by looters and did not mention coins.

2) The Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) comment presents a sobering portrait of Italy's unwillingness or inability to live up to its end of the current MOU with the United States:

Italy's grossly underfunded, over-bureaucratic cultural establishment is not up to that task.  Lack of effective and honest governance  negatively impacts  the preservation of Italy's  cultural heritage. Given the dismal performance of Italy's public sector,   Italy's antiquities and coin dealers should be allowed to sell not just to other Italians, but to the world.  Each MOU  has already called for Italy to ease the process for granting export permits for artifacts legally sold within Italy itself, something that has not happened (along with much else) because of Italy's choking bureaucracy. 

AAMD advocates opening up the Italian auction market so it can not only be a source of legitimately acquired artifacts, but help bring much needed money to help fund Italy's underfunded cultural establishment.  

 The AAMD   states that coins should be freed of foolish import restrictions:  
Export restrictions on many ancient coins...are illogical because they are not specific to Italy in origin and there is a ready, legal market for them in Italy. Many dealers in Italy advertise ancient coins for sale. Either Italy must agree to issue export permits for coins sold legally in Italy or the designated list should be amended to allow such coins to be brought into the United States.

Collectors should realize that it is difficult and time-consuming to obtain export permits for any sort of artifact from the Italian government. As a result, any unprovenanced coin included in the Designated List is effectively prohibited from entering the USA, even if it is sold at auction elsewhere in Europe and can legally be shipped almost anywhere else in the world.

3) Arturo Russo of Numismatica Ars Classica NAC AG, a numismatic firm and auctioneer with offices in Milan, Zurich and London, comments regarding about the frustrations of dealing with the Italian cultural bureaucracy:

As a quid pro quo for all prior MOUs, Italy promised to facilitate the issuance of export certificates for archaeological objects artifacts legitimately sold within Italy itself. 2001 MOU, Art. II, F; 2006 Extension, Art. II, F; 2011 Extension, Art. II, G.

This has not happened. In fact, since coins were added to the designated list for import restrictions in 2011, the Italian cultural bureaucracy has made it almost impossible for me to export coins from the country.

I used to be able to secure export licenses for collections of ancient coins so they could be sold at auction abroad. After restrictions were placed on Greek coins from Italy and Sicily, Etruscan coins from Italy, Early Roman Republican coins, and early Imperial Colonial and Provincial coins to 37 AD, I was told this would no longer be possible. When I enquired why, I was told that if such export licenses were granted, the Americans would not think that the Italian cultural bureaucracy was serious about protecting its cultural patrimony. It is important to state that these denials have been issued for coins with a legitimate provenance.

This is entirely backwards. The MOU purports to require Italy to make such objects legitimately sold within Italy available for legal export abroad, but instead the MOU is being used to justify precluding legal export of even common coins sold within Italy itself. Furthermore, Italian authorities deny export licenses even for very common coin types based on the argument that even a small variety is a good reason to decline an application. Please note that they also deny export licenses for coins of non-Italian origin with the premise that they would be difficult to acquire for Italian Institutions. 

Another major problem is that most of the staff is not qualified to cast informed judgment on the rarity or importance of a coin, in fact they are archeologists and not numismatists. I must admit on several occasions I found myself informing them of the existence of the proper reference works required to establish the rarity of a coin type or even worse I had to draw their attention to the fact that several coins of that type were already in Italian Museums.

Unfortunately, since 2012 the attitude of the Italian officials towards export licenses for coins have changed dramatically. Italian collectors are still important buyers in auctions abroad, but in the eyes of Italian authorities every single coin of average rarity should remain on Italian soil. I find this position unfair and unreasonable especially considering that Italy has a gigantic numismatic heritage which is not published and more importantly very difficult to access for scholars and collectors.

In my experience, almost all European countries take a reasonable position by granting export licenses for most of the coins excluding only the exceedingly rare coin types.

Collectors should realize that the cultural bureaucracy in nations receiving import restrictions awarded by MoU are not likely to understand their reciprocal obligations involving issuance of export licenses, and will instead "automatically" seek to deny almost every request pursuing a retentionist policy whose goal is to keep artifacts in state custody and prevent their export.

This is a bad policy when applied to artifacts in general, but in the specific case of ancient coins, it becomes a critical obstruction to the normal functioning of the international market for ancient coins. Italy is an extremely important source for Greek, Roman, Carthaginian and pre-Roman Italian coinage, and the USA is the most important market for these coins with an estimated half of the world's ancient coin collectors.

If reasonable policies for issuance of export licenses are not instituted, the intention of MoU restrictions is frustrated and these agreements become de facto barriers to international trade in certain classes of artifacts, in particular ancient coins. 

In this observer's opinion, that result is not happenstance. It is instead exactly what could be expected when the requesting and issuance of import restrictions are being managed by bureaucrats with a strong anti-collecting bias, who (although they will not publicly admit this) would prefer to see the international trade in ancient artifacts suppressed, and private ownership of such artifacts declared to be unlawful.

4)  Organizations commenting were opposed to renewal of the Italian MOU or import restrictions on coins

Trade Associations
The International Association of Professional Numismatists, the Professional Numismatists Guild, and the International Association of Dealers in Ancient Art all opposed the MOU or import restrictions on the lawful trade in ancient coins.

Educational Organizations
Both the American Numismatic Association and Ancient Coins for Education expressed concerns about import restrictions on coins.

Professional Organizations
The Association of Art Museum Directors took a nuanced approach to the MOU. While supporting the renewal, AAMD requested changes to encourage Italy to live up to its part of the bargain.

Advocacy Groups
Two groups that advocate for the interests of dealers and collectors, the Association of Dealers and Collectors in Ancient and Ethnographic Art and the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild, also argued against renewing the MOU or extending restrictions on historical coins.

Only one advocacy group associated with the archaeological lobby, the Lawyers' Committee for Cultural Heritage Preservation, supports the extension unequivocally.

In this observer's opinion there is a very clear divide between the opinions of those involved in ancient coin collecting and the numismatic trade, and the archaeology lobby.

Those involved in numismatics understand first-hand the immense damage import restrictions have done, and will continue to do, to the numismatic trade and to interests of ancient coin collectors worldwide and especially in the USA.

Those in the archaeology lobby do not understand numismatics or the numismatic trade, and perhaps do not even understand antiquities collecting. They instead view antiquities collecting and the international antiquities and art markets as "incentivizing looting of archaeological sites," and believe as an ideological tenet that the international trade in ancient artifacts should be suppressed, and private ownership of such artifacts declared to be unlawful.

They also do not understand that numismatics is a distributed science that is much older than archaeology, in fact an important ancestor of archaeology, and that ancient coin collectors are the primary source of numismatic research. Very little numismatic research is being carried out by archaeologists, although that which is being done is typically of very high quality and is enthusiastically welcomed by collectors and professional numismatists.

There simply are not enough archaeologists and academic professionals interested in this field to support its research requirements. To most archaeologists doing fieldwork, ancient coins are artifacts whose primary importance is utility in stratigraphic dating, and whose secondary importance is analysis of local economic and trade patterns. Once coins have been attributed, unless they are assessed as being suitable for museum display (a relatively rare event) they are placed in storage, usually without conservation or cataloging.

5) The Italian MoU has a harmful effect on the study and appreciation of Italian culture:

Karen Antonelli, a dual citizen of the US and Italy, expressed these concerns about the impact of the MOU on Italian Americans:

I am a dual citizen of the United States and of Italy living in San Francisco, California. I have a Ph.D. in Italian Literature from the University of California at Los Angeles as well as an M.B.A. from the University of Southern California. Although I lived most of my first twenty years in Italy (but born of American parents of Italian descent who were working for the U.S. government at the time), I have resided, full time, in the United States for more than forty years and treasure both my U.S. and my Italian heritage. I get tremendous satisfaction sharing my Italian heritage and culture with my fellow Americans and promote business relationships between Italy and the U.S. by teaching Italian language, literature and film classes as well as by performing professional translations for individuals and companies.

Unfortunately, the proposed extension (and perhaps expansion) of the present Memorandum of Understanding with Italy will do little to help, and a great deal to harm, the study and understanding of Italian heritage and culture, at the very least to the extent that it will restrict the import into the United States of abundant small objects like coins and other common artifacts. This is especially true as these objects were intended to, and did, travel great distances. These objects are useful not only in teaching the history of ancient Rome, its successor city-states and the modern Italian Republic, but in understanding so many aspects of its culture...societal relationships, religion, cultural tropes, trade and economics. 

The proposed MOU only harms United States citizens...restricting the import of the coins and similar common artifacts here, while they continue to be bought and sold, and travel widely, throughout Europe and even in Asia. 

As an Italian citizen, if I can purchase these objects in Italy as my heritage, why may I not bring them to the U.S. to share and teach?

Of course, I support the suppression of looting of archaeological sites (as I understand it, the purported reason for the ban on importation) but there are much better ways to do this than the extension of the MOU. Please do not renew it, or at least exempt from the extended MOU all common, abundant artifacts like coins. The goal of the Committee should be to preserve culture, not as an end in itself, but to promote the availability and awareness of culture to the citizens of the United States. 

In this observer's opinion, "cultural heritage" is not something exclusively possessed by a modern nation such as Italy, but is something that nation shares with the rest of the world which is interested (for cultural reasons) in that nation's past.Their cultural heritage is just as important as that of the present day citizens of that nation.

The cultural heritage of US citizens interested in classical studies, classical numismatics, ancient history and Italian culture is being restricted and damaged by efforts to sequester common and redundant Greek, Roman and Etruscan artifacts in Italy without regard for their lack of importance to science and archaeology.

As Antonelli observes, "abundant small objects like coins and other common artifacts" are of little importance to science, but of great importance to cultural appreciation and understanding. They should be disseminated as widely as possible, to enrich the cultural heritage experience and appreciation of all mankind.

Monday, March 16, 2015

"Calling All Morons???"

CPO Calling all Morons
by Paul Barford

"It's Not Too Late ..." 
Fellow Collector: It’s not too late to post a comment that could help preserve your continued ability to purchase Roman Imperial Coins from abroad.[...]
This is followed by:
"CPO will not accept comments to this blog post"
No prizes for guessing why not. It is not too late for the numismatic professionals associations to change their lobbyist to one that does not use cheap tricks to rile up the brainless morons in the US collecting world. If he was worth half the money they pay him, Peter Tompa would explain why the particular coins that already are in the US-Italy MOU are there, and why that means that "Roman imperial coins" never will be. But he is not going to explain that, is he? Draw your own conclusions.

194 Comments Received - mostly cut-and-pasted mass mailing by the coineys saying what Peter Tompa tells them to say.


Hmm ... "... the brainless morons in the US collecting world."

It isn't Peter Tompa in his CPO blog who is "calling all morons." Mr. Tompa presents reasoned arguments and statements in plain English that intelligent persons can easily understand and make up their own minds about.

Mr. Barford presents incendiary propaganda, pursuing his "abolish private collecting" crusade in archaeology-centric doublespeak. He doesn't attempt to help intelligent persons understand all sides of the issues he comments upon. He instead (in this observer's view) only seeks to mislead and deceive them.

He falsely attempts to portray US collectors as "brainless morons." Actually quite a high percentage of them are very, very well educated and have attained far more distinction in their lives than Mr. Barford has (or ever will) in archaeology, in which field he could not even attain continued employment. 

Peter Tompa, Wayne Sayles and Arthur Houghton, all frequent targets of Barford's verbal abuse, are among these many high-achieving luminaries. As another "frequent target," this observer can feel quite comfortable in the company he keeps.

There will undoubtedly be some "brainless morons" who do need someone else to do their thinking for them. Are they US collectors, or are they those who unthinkingly swallow Mr. Barford's strident anti-collecting propaganda whole?

"Draw your own conclusions."

Saturday, March 14, 2015

"Let Them Steal Our Artifacts"

Let them steal our artifacts—we do not deserve them

Abdulrahman Al-Rashed

Abdulrahman Al-Rashed

Abdulrahman Al-Rashed is the general manager of Al-Arabiya television. He is also the former editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat, and the leading Arabic weekly magazine Al-Majalla. He is also a senior columnist in the daily newspapers Al-Madina and Al-Bilad. He has a US post-graduate degree in mass communications, and has been a guest on many TV current affairs programs. He is currently based in Dubai.

The destruction of priceless historical treasures in Iraq by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) proves that we do not deserve these treasures that fill our museums and lie buried beneath our sands. We in the Arab world live surrounded by a great heritage, and yet fail to understand its value both to ourselves and the rest of the world. This is why the monuments were destroyed with an ease that belied their immeasurable importance—as if they were mere obsolete toys.

In order to protect the artifacts of our ancient ancestors and those who built these civilizations, we must lend them to those who know their value and can maintain them until the day comes when we mature and can bear this historical responsibility. Only then will we have the right to ask for them back.
Neither ancient nor modern history has witnessed anything close to the barbarism and destruction that ISIS recently wrought upon the ancient site of Nimrud and the treasures of the Mosul Museum. Its militants gleefully destroyed monuments that were almost 3,000 years old. But this is, unfortunately, not a new phenomenon: extremists have previously destroyed relics in Syria, while Al-Qaeda did the same in Afghanistan, as do the fundamentalists in Libya.
This destruction takes place under the pretext that ISIS and others like it are fighting polytheism and all its various manifestations. In light of these crimes, we should reconsider our rights to our historical monuments and artifacts, and admit that we do not deserve them.
What is happening in Iraq is not a fleeting crisis. It is a deep-rooted issue that exposes us. Instead of blaming the few extremists, we must admit that we are an underdeveloped region that lives in an era of darkness and decadence due to the presence of ISIS, Al-Qaeda, and similar groups that impose their will on those around them. Therefore, we cannot say that we have any rights to historical artifacts. Our duty is to smuggle these relics to other countries, where they can be preserved, looked after, and studied at the world’s most prominent museums.
We have a long history of ignorance regarding the importance and preservation of monuments and historical treasures. Earlier this year, the Egyptian Museum admitted that the beard of Tutankhamen’s golden mask, one of the greatest artifacts of all time, was broken off during what was otherwise an ordinary cleaning job. Another example is that of late Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, who shamelessly displayed statues of himself alongside ancient ones of the Chaldean king, Nebuchadnezzar.
Late Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser almost buried a whole city of relics when he decided to build the Aswan dam, and would have succeeded had foreign countries not worked to get the relics to safety. In the Arabian Peninsula, many archaeological sites and murals were destroyed because people thought they were prohibited drawings.
Fortunately for us, Western scientists and traders transferred and smuggled relics from Egypt, Iraq, Yemen and other countries. They are now preserved in the museums of France, Britain, Germany, Italy, Turkey and other countries. Although many demand the return of what was stolen, some of us know that the smuggling of these relics was a good move because, frankly, we do not deserve them.
We have not yet reached a mature phase of awareness regarding the importance of ancient artifacts. We lack the ability to preserve them, and the developed scientific means to maintain, look after and study them.
Imagine if Muslim extremists came to possess great treasures such as the statue of Nefertiti, which was smuggled to Germany at the beginning of the last century, or the statue of Queen Hatshepsut, or the head of Djedefre, or the towering obelisks, or the other thousands of Egyptian relics abroad. Imagine if Babylonian artifacts, which narrate Iraqi history and are currently on show in Britain, had stayed in Iraq. We all know they would have ended up just like the monuments that ISIS so ecstatically reduced to rubble.
Fortunately for us, some four million Arabic and Islamic manuscripts are stored in Western museums and universities. Otherwise, they would have been destroyed by the madmen of ISIS, or eaten by the mice that run rampant in abandoned storehouses in Arab museums.


This observer does not believe that the looting or smuggling of artifacts should be in any way condoned or encouraged. However, it appears that the fundamental issues discussed in Elliot Colla's article
represent not only Colla's thinking, but that of some other thoughtful Arab observers.

I observed in my comments to a relevant blog post by Peter Tompa that:

     "Colla's well-reasoned and well-informed comments paint a bleak picture indeed for Western antiquarians interested in ancient civilizations located not only in modern Iraq, but also in other lands whose present-day inhabitants follow Islam, and even in some lands whose inhabitants are not Islamic. The concept that "object veneration" associated with appreciation and study of the past is regarded by many who live there as a form of idolatry, to be met with hostility or at best with indifference, is appalling. But it is probably also entirely true. As a long-time "object venerator" to whom mankind's historical and cultural heritage is of very great importance, I perceive that this analytic look at the truth gives the lie to the foundations of the 1970 UNESCO Convention.

     Those concerned about the "cultural heritage" of Iraq and other "source states" do not appear to be the many who live there, but instead the few, most of whom do not - antiquarians such as myself, archaeologists, and local elites who share little if anything with the Egyptian fellahin and their counterparts in other lands. That presents a trenchant question: if the peoples of these lands are indifferent and even hostile to their "cultural heritage," what is the point in reserving it for them to ignore, or to destroy? Would it not be far more appropriate and beneficial to mankind to allow them to disseminate it to others who would appreciate and treasure it?"

and this met with an unreasonable and offensive reaction from Warsaw, implying that I and other Western participants in the licit antiquities market saw this sad reality as an opportunity to acquire looted artifacts "and of course, from his point of view, to make as much money as they can by selling them to collectors and museums and passing the money to the suppliers of these artefacts [meaning ISIL]." The URL of that post indicated that I was viewed as supporting ISIL:

It is a sad state of affairs when it becomes impossible to rationally discuss a problem such as this online without anti-collecting archaeologists (waging their own  jihad against antiquities collectors) seeking to exploit the discussion as a propaganda opportunity to further their destructive aims in the name of "preserving cultural heritage."

That is in the unhappy tradition of smashing redundant pottery (not wanted for museum collections) at the end of archaeological digs, to prevent it from finding its way into the hands of collectors, or for that same reason, advocating reburying redundant antiquities (for which curated storage is no longer available).

It is time to realize that "archaeology as ideology" is not, if evaluated objectively, accomplishing anything meaningful toward the goal of "preserving cultural heritage." A broader-based, common sense approach is needed here, rather than louder, shriller, more frequent repetition of the unprovable notion that antiquities collectors (including ancient coin collectors) are responsible for its destruction.

Collectors, in reality, support preservation of artifacts and cultural heritage, however they certainly don't believe or agree that they are the cause of the problem. It seems that they are not alone in that perspective, and that knowledgeable observers in source states don't believe that either. Perhaps those who don't toe the  Archaeological Institute of America party line should be listened to for a change.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

"Dealer Dave" vs. the "Warsaw Blogger"

US Antiquities Dealer Condones Buying 'Endangered' Artefacts from Middle East

Over in the US, dealers seem to be prone to following  James Cuno in his NYT response in suggesting that in order to "save them" from the brown-skinned folk in the unruly colonies, a more enlightened elite of "western antiquarians" should buy looted artefacts. Typical of such an attitude is Dealer Dave ("Classical Coins"), writing on the IAPN and PNG sponsored blogger's "Cultural Property Observer":
Cola's well-reasoned and well-informed comments paint a bleak picture indeed for Western antiquarians interested in ancient civilizations located not only in modern Iraq, but also in other lands whose present-day inhabitants follow Islam, and even in some lands whose inhabitants are not Islamic. The concept that "object veneration" associated with appreciation and study of the past is regarded by many who live there as a form of idolatry, to be met with hostility or at best with indifference, is appalling. But it is probably also entirely true. As a long-time "object venerator" to whom mankind's historical and cultural heritage is of very great importance, I perceive that this analytic look at the truth gives the lie to the foundations of the 1970 UNESCO Convention.

Those concerned about the "cultural heritage" of Iraq and other "source states" do not appear to be the many who live there, but instead the few, most of whom do not - antiquarians such as myself, archaeologists, and local elites who share little if anything with the Egyptian fellahin and their counterparts in other lands.  That presents a trenchant question: ifthe peoples of these lands are indifferent and even hostile to their "cultural heritage," what is the point in reserving it for them to ignore, or to destroy? Would it not be far more appropriate and beneficial to mankind to allow them to disseminate it to others who would appreciate and treasure it?
and of course, from his point of view, to make as much money as they can by selling them to collectors and museums and passing the money to the suppliers of these artefacts.


The URL of Barford's blog post is a classic example of slimy innuendo (and outright untruth) deceptively and knowingly presented in a manner that could hardly be more offensive or more misleading. I have made it abundantly clear that I not only do not "support ISIL," I oppose those barbaric jihadist thugs as strongly as I know how to do.

I did not say (and do not propose) that anyone should buy looted artifacts. I do not condone that, never have, and never will. I asked whether it would not be more appropriate to allow inhabitants of lands where "cultural heritage" is not valued by the mass of the people to disseminate artifacts to others who would appreciate and treasure them. There are licit ways to arrange this without "looting" and smuggling.

Finally I am getting more than a little tired of seeing snide, derogatory language such as "and of course, from his point of view, to make as much money as they can by selling them to collectors and museums and passing the money to the suppliers of these artefacts."

It has been alleged by some that Mr. Barford is either a Communist or Communist sympathizer. I have consistently rebuked such assertions, pointing out that his political affiliation is not publicly known. I will however say here that if Mr. Barford were a Communist, he could hardly write more offensively and more disdainfully regarding the sale of artifacts to collectors, which is the normal and customary process in most of the world, and has been so since long before Mr. Barford, or even archaeology itself, were conceived.

No one awards me an institutional grant or governmental salary to be a professional numismatist supplying ancient coins to collectors. I do not "feed at the public trough" as did Mr. Barford in those long ago days when he was actually (and briefly) employed as an archaeologist, and as do others who now join him in condemning collecting and trading in antiquities, including those as inoffensive as ancient coins. 

I have had to finance my business (supplying ancient coins to collectors) out of my own private resources, and it represents a huge investment. I don't earn as much (as a professional numismatist) as does a primary school teacher. There are no benefits or retirement plan. This is definitely a labor of love, and no one in his right mind would pursue it with profit being the primary motive.

Recently my esteemed friend Wayne Sayles deleted everything relating to "cultural property" from his own blog because he became utterly disgusted with seeing disgraceful insinuations and outright lies from such sources. The world is the poorer for the loss of his sagacious observations. 

This raises a trenchant question: How should an honest, ethical, law-abiding antiquarian deal with uncalled-for defamation of character and personal attacks from rabid anticollecting zealots? How can one best continue to candidly present pro-collecting views when assailed in an offensive, dishonorable manner?

Suggestions from friends and supporters (as comments) are welcomed.

More on "Knowing What You Are Talking About"

... and the opinions of one "archaeologist," who in another blog post about his "devil-worshippers" theme perhaps misunderstands Greek polytheism:

"... the coins of Thasos showing a naked satyr and a nymph do not ... represent scenes of everyday life in Thracian society for the simple reason that both satyrs and nymphs are imaginary creatures."

They weren't imaginary to the Thracians and Thasians 2500 years ago. They were instead very real.

Greek religion (and its role in the lives of those who then lived in Thrace and on the island of Thasos) is a large and deep subject. I began to understand this in my conversations with French numismatist Jean-Bruno Vigne, to whom their religious content was a significant component of his intense interest in Greek coins. In La vie des monnaies grecques he alludes to this.

Greek polytheistic religion wasn't at all about the hereafter, but about what happened to people in their daily lives, and how they perceived things and phenomena whose nature and causes they did not comprehend as we do today (after two and a half millennia of scientific progress to guide us).

To ancient Thracians and Thasians, one might perhaps not be able to see satyrs and nymphs with mere mortal vision (unless they wanted to be seen), but they were there nevertheless, and their association with the god Dionysos made them important in rituals of the Dionysaic cult. 

Dionysos was very powerful. He could drive a man mad, or incite others to tear him to pieces in their madness. He also possessed great powers over fertility: human, animal and agricultural. If a man wanted to be blessed with healthy children, abundant flocks and rich crops, it was wise to venerate Dionysos -- particularly where wine was concerned, for it was sacred to Dionysos.

Placing images of satyrs and nymphs in a Dionysaic ritual scene on coins acknowledged the ways in which Dionysos had blessed Thasos and become the divine source of its wealth. Later, the Thasians would place images of Dionysos himself on their coins.

The reality of gods, satyrs, nymphs and other beings and creatures we now think of as mythical was, of course, their presence in the minds of those who believed in them. Was that a material existence? No. Can a dialectical (or historical) materialist understand its true significance? Perhaps not.

Collectors however often go very far beyond materialism, exploring in their mind's eye what life was really like -- what people may have looked like, thought, and said to one another so long ago -- and may thus achieve visualizations bringing those ancient people back to life, enriching appreciation of our cultural heritage.

Some further resources that may aid in achieving such visualization:

Thessalonica by Harry Turtledove 

Ancient Greek Music:

on Youtube

on CD

on the WWW

Homeric Singing

Polytheism is alive today in India:


Monday, March 09, 2015

It's A Good Idea To Know What You Are Talking About Before You Say It

A certain "archaeologist" in Warsaw recently included the following coin image in his blog:

"Vignette: Ancient discs with devilish images for titillation of kaffir."

"kaffir" presumably here (misspelled) refers to Kafir, an Arabic term used by Muslims to describe a subset of society who have read, understood and rejected the message of the Qur'an. It is the only interpretation consistent with the title of the post, Devil-Worshippers and Ancient Art Collecting. 

It is erroneous to believe that these staters, issued by the island of Thasos (off the western coastal region of Thrace) between 435 and 404 b.c. were intended for anyone's titillation. They instead depict a religious theme - ritual abduction. Here is a better preserved example of the type:
Thasos was enriched not only by its legendary silver mines (both on the island itself and on the Thracian mainland nearby), but also by wine produced in abundance on the island, and renowned for its quality.

The Thasians were attracted to the orgiastic cult of Dionysos, both because of the great importance of wine to their society and because of their close ties to indigenous Thracian tribes. Mt. Nysa in Thrace is one legendary site of his infancy (Dio-Nysos, god of Nysa) and Thracian tribes then practiced ritual abduction as part of their marriage ceremonies, as well as in other aspects of their religious lives. The theme of ritual abduction in rural marriage customs did not end with the passing of antiquity, but continued in some areas of Thrace into the twentieth century.

Further online reading:

UPDATE 3/10/2015

The Warsaw blogger has now edited his post to substitute "kuffar" for "kaffir." His intended meaning, apparently, was "unbelievers" or "infidels." He added:
"Another one that went wa-a-a-y above the head of blinkered coineys. "it is only ritual abduction" argues  Dealer Dave, wrapped up [i]n his tiny world of self-justification. Tell that to the fundamentalists when they come for you."

Hmm ... The Warsaw blogger  is going  "wa-a-a-y above the head of" not only this observer, but just about everyone else who doesn't live in his own archaeology-centric world. 

I don't live in a "tiny" world at all, but instead in a grand, wonderful world of collectors in many nations who enrich their lives, those of their families and of their friends through appreciating and studying ancient coins and the fascinating stories they can tell connoisseurs about the societies that long ago created and used them. 

Collectors are very interesting, intelligent and inquisitive individuals, and my rewards as a professional numismatist really are not financial -- they are instead the satisfaction of helping so many fine people learn to understand and more fully appreciate the wonderful world of antiquity.

It was a fascinating world, very different from the one we live in today, much closer to nature, more spiritual and more attractive in many ways. One can literally spend a lifetime learning about it, as the great A. H. M. Jones did, and never learn it all. 

To the studious, contemplative mind, the pleasure of learning is only equaled by the consequent pleasure of sharing this knowledge by helping others to learn.

Storage Wars

Storage Wars: Solving the Archaeological Curation Crisis?

VOL. 3 NO. 1 2015


1    The Palace versus the Home: Social Status and Zooarchaeology at Tušḫan (Ziyaret Tepe), a Neo-Assyrian Administrative Provincial Capital in Southeastern Turkey
Tina L. Greenfield

27    Ancient Greek Deathscapes
Nikolas Dimakis


42    Storage Wars: Solving the Archaeological Curation Crisis?
Morag M. Kersel


55   Storage Wars 1, Curation 0
Raz Kletter

61   Is Every Sherd Sacred? Moving Beyond the Cultof Object-Centered Authenticity
Neil Asher Silberman

63   Building Capacity, Sharing Knowledge
Jack Green

71   Developing Strategies for Sustainably Managing Archaeological Collections
Andrew Jamieson


77   An Issue of Ethics? Curation and the Obligations of Archaeology
Morag M. Kersel


A principal reason for the archaeological storage / curation crisis is that vast numbers of excavated artifacts and fragments thereof are continually being accumulated, and there is grossly insufficient public funding to securely store and curate all of this largely redundant archaeological material.

One constraint severely aggravating this crisis is the ethical prohibition against archaeologists selling (or in any way being involved in the sale of) artifacts. The seriousness with which this prohibition is taken seemingly compares to prohibition by the Roman Catholic Church against selling holy relics. 

If it were possible to devise a cooperative scheme whereby artifacts of minor value to science, once they have served their archaeological purpose (and if  not wanted for a reference collection), could ethically be publicly sold with provenance for the financial support of archaeology, museums and curated artifact storage, this observer believes that archaeology, museums and antiquities collectors would all significantly benefit. 

This is especially true in the case of ancient coins, whose value to archaeology is typically quite limited and transient, and whose post-excavation curation is often problematical. Very large numbers of excavated ancient bronze coins lie in boxes, buckets and similar containers in storage facilities without climate control and without any attempt being made at conservation, The result is often rapidly progressive bronze disease, which can seriously damage or destroy coins in only a few years.

This scourge (and what must be done to combat it) are discussed here:

Travelers Beware!

Bringing antiquities - even seemingly innocuous antiques, or coins - out of a foreign country can be dangerous: 

Turkey vacation ends in putrid prison cell
By Jason Meisner
Chicago Tribune

Chicago businessman Martin O'Connor was at the tail end of a church-sponsored trip to Turkey with his wife in November when he bought a sword engraved with Arabic script at Istanbul's teeming Grand Bazaar. Inside a cramped kiosk stuffed with military memorabilia, O'Connor haggled the price down to $500.

Two days later, as he and wife Maureen were about to fly home, the couple were stopped at an airport checkpoint by Turkish police who suspected the sword was a valuable antiquity. Assured that the matter would be cleared up quickly, O'Connor persuaded his wife to board the jet and told her he'd follow on the next flight.

Instead, the financial trader spent the next eight harrowing days locked up in a filthy prison, charged with attempting to smuggle an artifact, an offense that can bring up to 12 years behind bars.

O'Connor is now safely back in the U.S., but three months after his return, the case is still playing out in Turkey, where the nation's Ministry of Culture and Tourism has appealed a court decision in January that cleared O'Connor of any wrongdoing.

"It's been hell," O'Connor, 50, told the Tribune. "I spent a fortune. I went through a nightmare, and my wife went through a nightmare not knowing what was happening with me in prison. ... And I do not expect anyone to ever say they are sorry."

The couple know they were fortunate to have had financial resources and family connections to fall back on. O'Connor's father, Edmund, was a driving force behind the creation of the Chicago Board Options Exchange in the 1970s. Maureen, an attorney who volunteers with Catholic Charities, is the sister of an Illinois state senator who was able to bring significant political pressure to bear.

After spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees and travel expenses, the O'Connors want their ordeal to serve as a warning to anyone vacationing in the region — particularly college-age kids with no cash or clout — that even a seemingly innocuous souvenir could land them in trouble.

"If I did not have the money, if I did not have the connections and if I didn't have a loving, hardworking, caring wife that managed it all and took care of it, I would still be in prison," O'Connor said on a recent afternoon in his town home in Chicago's Streeterville neighborhood. "I needed all three things."



It is difficult (and usually very expensive) to legally acquire a genuine ancient coin in countries such as Turkey, Greece or Egypt. Nearly everything offered to tourists, whether described as an ancient coin or another type of antiquity, is a reproduction. A tourist knowledgeable enough (or lucky enough) to acquire a genuine ancient coin in these countries must then get an export permit to take it home, which may be difficult and costly. Attempting to bring a coin or other antiquity home without a permit is a serious violation of the law, which can lead to the item being confiscated and perhaps even a long stay in prison. If you want an ancient coin as a memento of a trip you are taking, you will be far better off buying it from a reputable dealer such as Classical Coins.