Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Who owns Numismatics?

In a recent rant in his blog, anticollecting archaeoblogger Paul Barford confirms that he simply does not know what he is talking about regarding the science of numismatics:


Numismatics is not and never has been defined or controlled by academia or archaeologists. It is defined by numismatists, those who actually carry on its everyday business and research, and very few archaeologists or academics can by that definition be considered numismatists. Although their contributions are often valuable, academics and archaeologists don't in any sense own this discipline and Mr. Barford's views to the contrary are unrealistic.

Like all but a relative handful of archaeologists and others involved in the pernicious campaign against private collecting of ancient coins, Mr. Barford apparently feels no inhibitions whatsoever about pontificating upon a subject he does not understand and in which he has no actual qualifications.

What Mr. Barford had to say regarding my comment that few on his side of the dispute regarding collecting of unprovenanced ancient coins would do well in a simple test of one's knowledge of the subject is very revealing:

"Welsh then defines "professional expertise" as defined (in the discipline of numismatics) by ability to sort through a bulk lot of ancient coins. We are obviously talking about different things here. Whatever Welsh thinks it is, when I talk about a professional, I mean somebody with qualifications that go beyond mere hand-eye coordination. I think most of us equate the word "professional qualifications" in a discipline as consisting of something on paper, exams passed, courses completed, academic publications in peer-reviewed journals, that sort of thing."

Mr. Barford does not seem to understand that all real numismatists equate the word(s) "professional qualifications" with demonstrable knowledge of the source material, not academic rituals such as those he catalogues above.

A great many real numismatists would agree with me that the most distinguished living numismatist specializing in ancient coins is my colleague David Sear. David Sear has never attended a university, passed an exam, completed an academic course in numismatics, or (to my knowledge) authored an academic publication in a peer-reviewed journal. He has, however, written many of the most important papers and books upon the subject of ancient numismatics. He knows the source material intimately, and can perform sight attributions and authentications perhaps better than anyone else.

If we are to believe Mr. Barford, that sort of practical capability counts for nothing compared to accumulating academic credentials.

It seems to me that Mr. Barford's warped perspective can be exploded by considering the case of a person suffering from a medical disorder, who needs professional assistance. Would such a person be better served by a vocational nurse with no academic degree but extensive practical experience, or a Ph.D. lecturer-researcher without any actual experience in diagnosing and treating patients?

Numismatists - collectors and institutional curators - similarly need expert assistance to ensure that the coins they acquire for their collections are accurately identified and authentic. These capabilities are analogous to medical diagnostic skills, and they are what defines a true professional numismatist, as opposed to the mere accumulation of academic credentials.


Blogger Dorothy King said...

I agree with you - there are many numismatists that know the physical coins better than academics. It's the same with Old Master Paintings - academics can catalogue all the examples, but not tell fakes from originals. It just seems slightly ironic you say Barford wants people to have paper qualifications, as he doesn't have all that many himself. Did he drop out of his PhD?

12:56 AM  
Blogger Dave Welsh said...


It has been frustrating for true professional numismatists who do really know the source material to be lectured by the likes of Mr. Barford, who does not know much about numismatics and whose concept of a "professional numismatist" is an academic who in most cases would be like a fish out of water if confronted by the sort of practical tasks we deal with routinely.

As to Barford's qualifications, he has stated that he does have a baccalaureate or higher degree in archaeology from an accredited university. That is all I know about the matter.

4:55 AM  

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