Wednesday, April 15, 2015

ACCG Comments at Italy CPAC Hearing

Below is a transcript of the oral comments presented by Wayne G. Sayles, representing the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild, at the 2015 hearing of the Cultural Property Advisory Committee on April 8 at Washington, DC.  The hearing included public comment on a proposed extension of the current Memorandum of Understanding with Italy.  Formal written comments were submitted earlier and may be seen here.


Madam Chair and distinguished committee members,

The Ancient Coin Collectors Guild was founded as a non-profit organization in 2004.  Since then, I've appeared eight times before this committee to comment on potential import restrictions.  The guild and its 22 Affiliate Member clubs represent the interests of doctors, lawyers, educators, clergy, politicians and members of countless trades and walks of life.  Even some archaeologists.  U.S. import restrictions on ancient coins that are legally traded elsewhere around the globe negatively impact many thousands of American citizens and hundreds of businesses.  The private collecting of ancient coins is a venerable activity with an associated trade dating back more than 600 years and enabling a remarkable tradition of independent scholarship.  It remains, today, a legitimate and honorable pursuit that serves society well and is therefore protected under law.  For tactile learners at all levels, there is no stronger connection to the past than the holding in one's hand of an authentic ancient coin—common though it might be.  Even in Italy, ancient coin collectors and dealers abound—collecting and trading in coins that are on the MOU designated list here.  Italy has no import restrictions on ancient coins. 

Ironically, yellow journalism has portrayed private collecting in a totally different light.  Spurious articles characterizing collectors as "the real looters" are classic illustrations of the Big Lie.  In a recent NY Times article, archaeologist and Getty Museum director Timothy Potts acknowledged that "It has become an article of faith that any form of trade in cultural items is bad."  He was of course describing an institutional ideology, not a public condemnation nor tenet of law.  We are a nation governed by law. Subjective articles of faith and ethics are not precepts of law and therefore are not relevant to the deliberations of this committee.   We petition this committee to honor the wishes of the People and use law, rather than emotion, as a guide to your deliberations. 

We're all here, despite our differences, because of one cultural property law.  It's a fair, well-thought-out law and we in the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild stand by it. In addition to protecting significant cultural objects and heritage, the Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act very clearly recognizes and protects the trade in utilitarian artifacts like coins.  It protects what we call orphaned artifacts that have circulated in international trade, often for centuries, without any requirement or need for recorded provenance.  The law only allows import restrictions on objects that were "first discovered within" and "subject to export control" of a State Party with whom an MOU might be negotiated.  Another of the protections under this law is the formation of this very committee to represent the interests of all affected parties and to advise on issues that are germane to the law's purpose and implementation. 

We all deplore and condemn illicit trade and must cooperate with just and concerted international enforcement to combat that scourge. The Cultural Property law was written for all of us and we all need to follow it.  We will and I hope you will—by following that law and exempting common coins from any renewal of this MOU. 

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Surviving the chase

Once I heard about a collector who didn't care what he had to pay for a coin, and cared even less what he could eventually sell his collection for.  I have yet to meet him, but he probably does exist—somewhere.  More typically, collectors envision their accumulations as having some value above and beyond the ethereal benefit that comes from personal satisfaction.  But is that really true?  Do we stand a chance, financially, of surviving the chase?  Most of us don't think about that too much, perhaps as a defense mechanism to ward off anxiety attacks.  But really, is it likely that our coins will be worth something someday? 

That is a fair question and it deserves an honest answer.  Beginning collectors, by nature, tend to lack the sophistication to collect in a way that will maximize their chances of a good return on their investment.  Many will be inclined to accumulate a menagerie of inexpensive coins which seem an incredible bargain in comparison to modern issues.  Coins like this, which exist in the hundreds of thousands or more, are undeniably worth the price that they bring on today's market.  But, will they be worth more tomorrow?  My guess is that they will, but only marginally.  It is unlikely that a collector who buys a “Heinz” variety of common ancient coins today will be able to resell them anytime in the near future at a profit.  As one might expect, the coins that traditionally appreciate most in value are also the most actively sought and competed for in the market. This can be an intimidating environment for fledgling collectors and not everyone is comfortable with it in their formative years.  Those who have the financial resources may choose to buy high grade and rare coins right from the start, but they should find a reputable advisor before jumping into the fray.  For those who simply want to enjoy collecting and do not have the budget to delve into rare and expensive issues, all is not lost.

There are many areas of ancient coin collecting that are neglected by mainstream collectors.  Sometimes, these coins can yield good returns, as well as important expertise, to the collector who bothers to learn about them and to collect them with persistence and purpose.  In coin collecting, like many other pursuits in life, knowledge is power.  And, for those who haven't yet figured it out, power = wealth.  The best way to turn an inexpensive collection into something of value is to stock it with interesting coins that others have failed to appreciate.  And, in the process, a serious collector expands the corpus of our knowledge about the past.  So, what are these coins?  They can be found in almost any series, but I will mention just a few here to give you an idea of what I am suggesting and then you can figure out for yourself what kinds of coins might suit your taste, budget, and inclination.  Those coins that seem to be found everywhere you look can sometimes hold potential for appreciation, simply because they are so cheap to begin with.  What happens when a huge hoard of one type appears is that the market immediately becomes depressed for those issues.    Nevermind that there are many rare specimens passing at generic coin prices, the entire market for a given series can suffer from the saturation caused by large hoards.  The savvy collector will see this as an opportunity to obtain rarities at common coin prices.  But, to do this, one needs to learn the series.

Market saturation most often comes from the discovery of large hoards—these are generally limited today to the types of coins found outside the Mediterranean basin,  where reasonable export laws allow international trade.  Keep in mind that hoards come and go.  A few years from now, something else will be common and the coins we see today may well be obscure.  We are seeing a rather unusual opportunity in the market today, as there are many more ancient coins available than there are collectors for them. 

http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-devon-29368075
 The Seaton Down Hoard of 22,000 coins is one example of hoards found in Britain 
that could potentially end up in the ancient coin trade. (BBC photo)

So, rather than chase the high profile coins that everyone will bid dearly for, why not collect the coins that no one pays any attention to?  They are inexpensive, and often they are rare—but  at the moment few seem to care.  In the nearly 50 years that I have been collecting and selling ancient coins, there have been a great many changes in the market.  What is hot today is not tomorrow, and vice-versa. 

Another source of market saturation is the liquidation of very large old collections.  The Edoardo Levante collection is a prime example, but only one of many in the past few decades.  The added value of a distinguished provenance is increasingly attractive these days.  The key is to purchase during the rush to sell because these coins typically increase in value more quickly than hoard coins.

Over time, collections that are assembled with forethought and consistency will outperform those accumulated randomly, regardless of the series that they represent.  It can be smart to collect coins that others ignore.  Twenty years ago, Turkoman coins were so poorly understood that they were practically unsaleable.  Today, the market for these coins is stronger than ever in their history.  Nice Roman Provincial coins that were cheap in the 1970s and 80s, when the market was hot for Roman Imperial coins, are more highly regarded in todays market.  Meanwhile, the sestertii that were darlings of that era are much less in favor these days.  Today, there is international interest in Islamic coins that were looked upon with disdain by many collectors in previous generations. 

It is this writer's opinion that the way to survive the chase is to collect with a purpose and not be afraid to be a bit contrarian.  Regardless of your interest or budget, it is better to collect intensely within a managable area than to attempt an accumulation of many diverse and unassociated items.  A collector should not think in terms of years, but in decades.  It is very difficult to assemble a meaningful collection in a few years.  Choose your path carefully and plan to spend a good share of your collecting life following it.  If you do, and if you mature as a collector along the way, it is likely that your collection will indeed be worth something to someone when your time with it has come to an end.  And, as a bonus, it will bring you a lot more enjoyment in the meantime.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Did the Ancients believe the Earth was round?

A debate over whether the ancients knew the world is round has been simmering for centuries, and still pops up now and then.  In the February 1998 issue of The Celator, Michael Marotta presented a well thought out argument for the affirmative ("Ancient coins show they knew it was round"). Examining the literature and numismatic evidence, he concluded that the ancients did indeed know the world is round and that the globes depicted on ancient coins (both Greek and Roman) are sometimes a representation of the Earth.  Evidence and interpretations in these sorts of debates may continue to surface long after the initial discussion has run its course and this subject is no exception.  Crates of Mallus was extremely famous in antiquity, as a polymath grammarian and Stoic philosopher, and is no stranger to scholars of today.  Nonetheless, since his work is seldom mentioned in the field of numismatics we can assume that some numismatists might not be aware of his astounding hypothesis.

The Greeks, always seeking a sense of symmetry were ill at ease with the calculations of Eratosthenes (275-194 BC) who postulated the size of the terrestrial globe.  His theoretical size was much too big for the known size of the inhabited world that they knew .  In fact, the oecumene occupied only one-fourth of the theoretical size of the earth.  Crates solved the problem by anticipating the existence of three other continents, separated by water, which formed a balance and an acceptable harmony.  It was recognized by Crates that this could be represented accurately only in the form of a globe.  His theory was so highly respected that the Attalid King Eumenes II commissioned him to construct a 10 foot diameter globe at the library of Pergamum in 180 BC.
Actually, Crates credited this spherical earth theory to Homer.  He believed that Homer's writing was based on actual events and scientific facts rather than fanciful and poetic myth.  Crates went on to Rome, where he taught philosophy and literary criticism to the noble and wealthy.  Suetonius spoke highly of him, which would suggest that his views were not alien to the Romans.

The Globe of Crates
The Globe of Crates (Wikipedia)


The famous Roman geographer Strabo (63 BC - AD 21) wrote: “Whoever would represent the real earth as near as possible by artificial means, should make a sphere like that of Crates, and upon this draw the quadrilateral within which his chart of geography is to be placed.”  He went on to describe how the lines should intersect at  90 degrees and how such a globe should be constructed. 
This intersection of lines, or quadrants may well account for the intersecting lines seen on some globes on coins from the Flavian and Antonine periods.  These lines have been traditionally thought of as an equinoctal cross (see: Michael Molnar, “Symbolism of the Sphere”, The Celator, June 1998) and probably are in some cases.  However, given the widespread acceptance of Crates' theory, it is not at all unlikely that representations of the earth could or should appear on coins along with stars and intersecting lines of quadrilateral division.  The appearance of stars on or near a globe has often been cited as a celestial depiction with the globe representing the heavens.  It can just as easily be seen as Earth in its natural setting among the stars.


Sestertius of Antoninus Pius with Italia seated on Globe with intersecting lines (CNG photo)


Another Roman coin type of the Antonine era that suggests the belief in Earth as a globe is the remarkable bronze medallion of Commodus with Tellus, the personification of Mother Earth, resting her hand on a globe adorned by a procession of the four seasons.



 Tellus and globe on the reverse of a medallion of Commodus (CNG photo)

The theory of land masses on opposite sides of the globe was not lost over time.  Some of us today may remember that our grammar school lessons included study of the "Dark Ages" when people supposedly thought the world was flat.  This, unfortunately was a distortion of the facts.  The uneducated and ignorant masses of that time, steeped in the lore and fear of alchemy and magic, may have believed so, but mariners who trusted their lives to the sea understood well the principles of a spherical earth.  So too did the cartographers who recorded the journeys of these intrepid mariners and encouraged the Age of Exploration that led to several hundred years of discovery, mapping and colonization.

It is probable that Columbus knew precisely where he was headed in 1492, the only questions were how far was it, how long would it take to get there, and what would he find when he arrived?

Monday, February 09, 2015

Truth is still important

My post of last week provoked a response that deserves some attention.  A Punk Archaeologist @adreinhard posted on Twitter three Facebook profile photos of me with bold captioned "quotes":

1. "The AIA taps your phones to find out where your archaeology is hid"
2. "The AIA uses drones to pursue its agenda of world domination"
3. " The 'I' in AIA is for 'Illuminati' "

In another place my blog post was referenced as "AIA Is Isis".

I hesitate to post those images here because someone will surely claim that I endorsed them. 

When I tried to "Follow" the Twitter account above and explain my views in more detail, I was met by a message saying that my access was blocked by the account holder.

I have become inurred to sarcasm and ridicule through many years of being an archaeoblogger target. Consequently, I don't really feel too offended by this spoof which would be relatively harmless if not for the fact that some readers might take those words as being my own.  They were not and are not.

My blog was not remotely a suggestion that AIA has any connection to the Islamic State or that the AIA condones any of their actions, or is spying on the American public.  In fact, quite the opposite is true.  AIA is as actively opposed to IS as they are to private collecting.   This perversion of what I said is so typical that it really should not require a response—but the facts are too important to ignore.  In my view, IS and AIA do have some things in common—things that I find objectionable.  While IS was ransacking the library in Mosul, the AIA was acting to repress any public sale of archaeological objects by its members.  Both acts, based on ideology, can be viewed as denying information about the past to the general public.  In the long history of antiquarian studies, libraries and independent scholars—including hundreds of notable private collectors—have played a significant role.  The accumulation of private collections has greatly enriched our knowledge of the past and in many cases has become the cornerstone of public institutions today.  The repression of private collecting, now an openly stated objective of the AIA, is in my eyes not much different than the ransacking of a library.  That does not turn AIA into IS by any means, but AIA deplores the loss on one hand and espouses it on the other. 

Control of the past is an ambition that IS and AIA share, not for the same reasons but certainly as a matter of ideology.  Where the Islamic State is theologically committed to erradication of non-Islamic history, the AIA is committed to erradication of private collecting and independent scholarship in fields of interest to their profession.  Both cases are examples of protectionism for an ideological position.  That does not turn AIA into IS, but they may be seen as "birds of a feather" in that sense.  The notion that AIA leadership today has little room for opposing views has been bolstered repeatedly and I don't think I am wrong to point that out. 

Is the AIA a scourge?  The profession certainly is not and the organization itself is certainly not.  What is a scourge is the attitude and ideology the permeates AIA leadership to the detriment not only of the general public but of its own members.  Would we consider Islam a scourge? Not at all.  Many of the world's greatest accomplishments were born under Islamic influence and leadership.  The West would have much less information today about the Classical World if not for those 10th century Islamic scholars of the Jazira and their enlightment of Europe.  The attitudes and ideology of IS today do not reflect the whole of Islam any more than the attitudes and ideology of AIA leadership reflect the whole of Archeology.

In the blogosphere, it's "fair enough" to say what you think.  But truth is still important and there comes a dividing line between opinion and fact.  The fact is that the words pasted over top of my photo in the citation above are not mine and do not reflect the concerns that I have about Archaeology today. 

Having said that, I finally have had enough of the rancor and literal hatred that permeates the cultural property war online.  I have tried every possible approach from entreaty to debate and cooperation to litigation.  In the process, I've gotten older and more cynical but obviously not wiser.   Long ago I should have ignored the archaeobloggers and trolls.  Instead, I fell victim to them—wasting valuable time over pointless tit-for-tat, time than cannot be replaced.  If I were the emperor, I would banish them all to Pandateria.   But, I am not and this is not an internet war game.   This is the last post that I will make with any mention of cultural property issues.  I am removing all previous posts and starting a new day.  The only posts on this blog henceforth will be about ancient coins themselves.  My advocacy for private ownership and collecting of ancient coins has not abated, but my willingness to argue the case in this climate has.  Everyone knows how I feel and that will not change—this blog will. 






Sunday, June 10, 2012

Analysis: one of the joys of ancient coin collecting


Mardin, Najm al-Din Alpi
AD 1152-1176 (AH 547-572)
Gemini / Virgo and Mercury

Did you ever look at the image on an ancient coin and wonder, why did they choose this particular image? If the coin happens to bear the portrait of a king or emperor, the answer may seem obvious. But what about the iconography of the reverse? Does the coin promote some political program, or record some historical event? Perhaps it pays hommage to a deity, or alludes to a social value. The possibilities are virtually endless, and they range from the patently obvious to the incredibly obscure.

The figural bronze coins struck in Mesopotamia during the 12th and 13th centuries are exceptional for many reasons, but foremost because they are unlike anything evenly remotely contemporary. Islamic coins struck prior to the advent of Turkish hegemony in the Jazira (Arabic for "land between the rivers") were devoid of images—primarily due to a perceived Koranic prohibition. Why should we suddenly find not only images, but bold sculptural renderings of classical designs and themes on Islamic Turkish coins? This question haunted numismatists for over two hundred years before its secrets were exposed through a comprehensive analysis of the figures on those coins.

The first step in analyzing an image is of course to identify its components. For purposes of illustration, let's examine a coin motif that I first wrote about some ten years ago in Turkoman Figural Bronze Coins and Their Iconography. The coin is a bronze dirham (34mm) of the prince Najm al-Din Alpi, who ruled Mardin from AD 1152 to 1176. Alpi was not a great historical figure, and he would be little remembered today were it not for the fascinating series of coins that bore his and his cousins' names.

The undated issue catalogued as S/S 28 bears on its obverse a depiction of two diademed male busts in profile, facing each other. On the reverse, a nimbate female figure stands, facing, crowning a male figure. The prototypes for this imagery are easily recognizable to modern collectors of ancient coins as numismatic. In other words, the die engravers of Alpi's time were inspired to use the images they saw on ancient coins which they obviously had in their possession. Specifically, the obverse type recalls Seleucid prototypes and the reverse is a nearly exact replication of the reverse of some earlier Romaion (Byzantine) imperial coins.

Having identified what the images represented in antiquity, we are still left to ponder what meaning they had in the 12th and 13th century Jazira. We know what designs the artist chose, and where they originated, but what did they mean? Celators seldom produce singular works. That is, they tend to develop themes and to think in iconographic programs. If we are to understand what the images on Alpi's coin mean, we will be helped by expanding the window of observation. In the case of Turkoman coins, this is easily done because the dynasties were fairly shortlived. The entire episode of figural bronze coins lasted little more than 200 years. Looking at a catalogue of the coins, one is struck immediately by the apperance of several unmistakable images from the astrological world. In fact, the elements of an iconographic program become more and more obvious as one examines the entire series from an astrological view.

Are there astrological parallels in the images on this type? Again, ancient coin collectors will recall that the Dioscuri (Gemini) were often represented by the Greeks and Romans precisely in the manner shown here. If Alpi's die engravers did actually intend to represent the Gemini, what then did they intend on the reverse? The scene, which clearly is copied from Romaion coins, illustrates the Virgin crowning an emperor. This was a common theme, through which the emperor bolstered his perceived legitimacy. It should be remembered that the virgin was also an important element of the zodiac. Not, of course, the same virgin as that of the Romaioi—but certainly not beyond metaphorical comparison. And, who is the male figure being crowned? A little investigation into the precepts of astrology reveals that Mercury is "exalted", or at his height of power, while in the constellation Virgo. In the astrological system of planetary domiciles, Virgo is the night house of Mercury. And who is Mercury's day house? You guessed it—Gemini. Well, now we know what the images are, where they came from and what they meant. But why would the mintmaster of a Turkish Emir choose such remarkable western images? Perhaps the mintmaster was not a Turk at all. In fact, the historical record tells us that locally educated Nestorian Christians were used by Turkish rulers to administer their financial affairs. This opens an entire new world of enquiry, and from the image on a single coin we can find ourselves exploring the whole social fabric of a people. Who said Art History is boring?





Sunday, August 07, 2011

Tips for Buyers of Ancient Coins

Some ACCG members have asked what they can do to assure that the purchases they make are legal.  One might theoretically ask the same question about many objects or substances that are traded domestically and internationally.  The ACCG web site offers a few common sense precautions and general observations that all collectors might keep in mind.
A basic precept of criminal law is that "the act does not make a person guilty unless the mind be also guilty."  This principle is called mens rea.  It simply means that an element of intent is necessary for guilt to be assigned.   Within fields related to art and cultural property, the responsibility of a buyer in this regard is often referred to as "due diligence".  A buyer should have a reasonable expectation that title is clear and transferable before purchasing something that may be controlled by law or administrative rule and should exercise a normal degree of caution in coming to that conclusion.  Of course, "reasonable" and "normal" are subjective terms that can and are debated endlessly.
The legitimate market for ancient coins operates worldwide, even in some countries (like Italy) from which import of certain types of ancient coins into the United States is restricted.  In some countries, like Israel, export permits are issued to registered dealers.  In other countries, coins above a specified monetary value require export permits.  Buyers from established dealers in the traditional market can reasonably expect that their purchases are offered with good and transferable title.  But, it never hurts before making a purchase to ask whether a coin has been (or is being) legally imported into the United States.  The seller of a coin already in the United States may not know when or where a particular coin was imported, and is not required to know.  But the seller should be willing to state in writing that he or she has clear title to the object being sold.  This statement is obviously a "best knowledge and belief" statement because ancient coins do not come with a title like an automobile.
Here are a few very simple precautions that a buyer might take:
  • Only buy from reputable sources that will guarantee title for your purchases. 
  • Always ask for an invoice for your purchase, which should be retained along with any collecting history you have for your coins.
  • For purchases directly from abroad, make sure the sender properly declares the country of manufacture of the coin and its value.
  • For coins subject to import restrictions directly purchased from abroad,  ship separately from other coins and make sure they are accompanied with certifications attesting to the fact that they were out of the country for which restrictions were granted before the date of the restrictions.
 The prospect of seizure of coins from law abiding rank and file collectors is remote and is not a cause for undue concern.  This does not, however, absolve collectors from doing their part to discourage the illicit transfer of cultural property.   The ACCG is chartered to defend the legitimate hobby of ancient coin collecting and calls on all of its members, collectors and dealers alike, to exercise due diligence as buyers of cultural property.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Roman Dodecahedron

An article in Fox News recently asked for reader opinions on the purpose of an unusual artifact that is found in widely dispersed areas and has apparently stumped scholars for centuries.  Here's my guess as to its purpose:




This is a game piece similar to rolling dice.  A round ball, slightly smaller than the largest hole in the dodecahedron, is dropped through the largest hole into the center of the ball.  The dodecahedron is then rolled, like a die, and comes to rest on one of its twelve sides - held slightly above the playing surface by its projectile points.  If the ball drops out of the hole that comes to rest on the bottom, the player gets a point.  There can be more than one hole large enough to pass the ball.  The more large holes the dodecahedron has, the easier it is to score.   For example three large holes offer more chances to score a point than one large hole (3:12 vs. 1:12).  Therefore, the dodecahedron can be manufactured in different degrees of difficulty that changes the chance of success from easy to hard.   One can imagine playing to a total of ten, twenty or more points depending on the number of players and the amount of time at hand.  This game is highly portable, culturally anonymous, educationally unbiased and can be played by people who cannot even speak each others' language.  The winning prize is limited only by one's imagination.