Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Die Wacht am Rhein

Fest steht und treu die Wacht, die Wacht am Rhein!

There’s a different sort of watch kept along the Rhine these days. No longer is it maintained by German patriots fearing a possible military invasion, instead it is anxiously kept by German coin collectors who fear that police will invade their homes to seize their cherished collections.

German authorities have recently begun searching private homes and seizing entire collections of antique coins, if provenance of only a few coins in the collection is not documented. These invasions are being conducted under German laws on importation of cultural property. Coins subjected to such scrutiny are not restricted to ancient coins that might reasonably be presumed to have been excavated - medieval and antique modern coins are also vulnerable to the same measures. In one recent case, a pensioner from the Thuringian Eisenberg acquired four old coins on an Internet auction site. Shortly afterwards his house was searched, ending with seizure of his entire collection. Collectors are understandably alarmed, because very few coins in their collections have provenances that will satisfy the new laws. When a collection becomes suspect only a short time is being allowed to prove licit origin before the collection is seized, and then even if the suspicion is unfounded, it is very difficult to recover the collection.

Not only coins but all "cultural objects" more than 100 years old are subject to these cultural property laws, leading to fears that stamp collections, collections of graphic arts and antique jewelry may also be targeted. The list of "cultural objects" in the 1970 UNESCO Convention is very extensive, including such common replicated articles as coins, postage stamps, photographs and printed books.

The new Federal list declaring objects subject to laws on importation of cultural property became effective in September 2008, after the German government finally gave in to demands that importation of unprovenanced coins and other artifacts should be prevented, because archaeologists allege that looting of archaeological sites is driven by the collecting market. This allegation is unproven - no verifiable, factual evidence has yet been presented to support it. There is however significant evidence that looting would continue unabated even if collecting could be prevented in Europe and other areas where cultural property laws are respected.

Meanwhile German coin collectors now feel completely insecure, like criminals under suspicion of breaking the law. According to Ulf Draeger – who heads the Moritzburg Landesmünzkabinetts and also chairs the German Society of Medallic Arts - the entry into force of these new laws, despite their good intentions, has led to significant collateral damage in only a short time. His conclusion: "If this situation continues, then we can pack up."

According to an unconfirmed report received from one German coin collector, the Police Commissioner from Usingen in Hesse (Eckhard Laufer) is responsible for these incidents. Laufer, who has received several awards for his past efforts to combat illicit antiquities trafficking, issued a declaration to the effect that ancient objects (including coins) may only be collected when the collector is able to submit an official confirmation that these objects do not come from looted excavations. Although there is presently no legal framework justifying such an unprecedented requirement, in Hesse at least it is now the guideline being enforced by police and prosecutors.

Herr Laufer had previously investigated and charged antiquities sellers in Hesse who were active on eBay (eBay provided full cooperation) and is now targeting customers of these sellers with criminal complaints. There have been numerous police actions including house searches and collection seizures, and some 200 complaints are pending. The collectors involved have had to make great efforts to defend themselves, since ignorance of the law apparently prevails among law enforcement authorities and Herr Laufer is driven by a huge sense of mission.

There is still much uncertainty among German authorities regarding application of the Cultural Goods Protection Act. German officials seem to have an unfortunate tendency to rigidly prohibit or declare illegal everything that they do not understand.

For a general summary in English see

For the original news articles in German see

Monday, February 02, 2009

2008: A Difficult Year

2008 was a difficult year during which several adverse developments occurred.

The development affecting most people worldwide was a major economic crisis that began with the collapse of overinflated US housing and credit markets. This soon spread to every other nation participating to a significant extent in the global economy, and today even China is experiencing its effects. The crisis is still upon us, and it is not clear what its ultimate depth will be or when a recovery will take place.

Developments in 2008 affecting coin collecting involved continued progress of cultural nationalists and radical archaeologists toward their long term goal of eliminating private collecting of “cultural property.” Their most notable success came when the German government gave in to demands that importation of unprovenanced “cultural objects” (including coins) should be prohibited as part of Germany’s implementation of the 1970 UNESCO Convention. More will be said about the effects of this legislative change in a subsequent post.

Classical Coins had a very difficult time during the last half of 2008, originating in the outbreak of an intense and dangerous wildfire in the mountains above Goleta. Although this fire did not spread into the city, it was burning under high voltage power lines supplying electricity to southern Santa Barbara County. Innumerable power outages resulted, and our offices had to be shut down for two weeks. The effects of this setback affected everything afterward, including the holiday season during which we were so administratively stressed that orders could not be shipped as fast as they came in.

Despite all these difficulties, there was one significant favorable development: the market for collectibles, including ancient coins, prospered during 2008. When other investment alternatives are devalued, collectibles tend to do well. Ancient coins in particular have proven to be very stable and reliable long term investments, retaining their value despite all the vagaries of transient political and economic trends.

One ironic thought: In opposing the goals of anticollecting extremists, I am in reality working to limit the appreciation of my own very substantial investment in ancient coins. Should the trade in ancient coins ultimately be constrained as anticollecting extremists desire, an inventory of ancient coins acquired before that sad event happens will become much more valuable. The value of my inventory would probably double. Although those who relentlessly campaign against coin collecting strive to portray numismatic professionals as greedy exploiters, nothing could possibly be further from the actual truth.

Being a dealer in ancient coins is a labor of love - very few if any of those involved in it would fail to make significantly more money doing something else. I can make twice as much per hour as a consulting engineer. It is certainly relevant to consider how many archaeologists, museum curators, cultural ministry officials and other anticollecting activists could expect to do as well were their present occupations no longer available.