A Clear and Present Danger
From The Celator, December 2003.
Wayne G. Sayles, "Through the Looking Glass" |
December 01, 2003
Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volley'd and thunder'd;
Storm'd at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of Hell
Rode the six hundred.
This emotional passage from Alfred Lord Tennyson's famous Charge of the Light Brigade might just as well have been written about collectors of ancient coins these days. Traditionally a genteel pursuit, with a following of serious and dedicated aficionados, the hobby is now besieged by a host of self-serving interests that threaten its very existence.
The problem may have deeper roots, but the past decade has seen an eruption of attempts to undermine the legitimacy and the prestige of this time-honored avocation. In a recent column, we discussed the Archaeological Institute of America's attempts to discredit private collecting. That effort continues, and indeed grows, as we collectors sit idly by and wait for others to dictate our future rights.
Most recently, in a national publication for the arts (The Art Newspaper, No. 139, Sep. 2003), Ricardo J. Elia gleefully applauded the conviction of a New York antiquities dealer on charges relating to the receipt of "stolen" cultural property. Elia is a professor in the Archaeology Department of Boston University. Without arguing the merits of this prosecution, it is enough to reiterate some of Professor Elia's comments. In the article, he states that “Looting, smuggling, and fraud have always been the stock-in-trade of the antiquities market”. In another tirade, he refers to the “sordid workings of the antiquities market” and claims that there is no such thing as a reputable dealer in the antiquities trade. His precise words were “...to archaeologists, "Reputable dealer" is an oxymoron."
This hostile, and blatantly inaccurate, characterization of the entire collector market, and consequently of the community of private collectors, is merely one small bullet in a now constant fusillade. It is expressly designed to eradicate the collecting of antiquities, including ancient and medieval coins, as a private pursuit. There have always been academic gadflies who disavow the right of individuals to collect, but seldom have they found such lofty platforms from which to preach, and never before have they mounted such a serious threat to our freedoms.
The hobby is simultaneously at risk from a growing threat at the opposite end of the spectrum. The advent of the internet, and particularly of public internet auctions, has made it possible for a new cottage industry of forgers to widely market their wares. In the traditional market that most readers of this publication have come to know and trust, forgery is controlled in two ways. Experienced dealers are relatively well equipped to screen out fakes, and virtually all dealers in the traditional market will guarantee the authenticity of any coin they sell. These protections are not provided in many internet auctions. Consequently, new collectors (and even fledgling dealers) with very limited experience can become easy victims for internet fraud. This puts the entire hobby in a bad light, especially when chat list gurus fan the flames of paranoia from their towers of Babel. The impact is clear—we lose many of these new collectors and their potential support.
Private collectors are the bulwark of numismatic research, and have been for more than 400 years. Without private collections and research, our knowledge of the past would fall far short of its current state. Consider doing any serious research without published private collections like Pozzi; Dattari; Houghton; Jameson; Lindgren; McClean; Naville; Bement; Newell; Rosenberger, Spaer; Rosen; Senior; Shore; Berry; Lloyd, Lockett; Morcom; Von Aulock; Vlasto; Waddington; Weber; Gulbenkian; Bendall; Whittemore and Zacos—just to name a few. The long list could easily fill this column. Internet databases of private collections are also rapidly coming into their own as valuable research tools. Most of the coins from these massive private collections and databases are still circulating (legally) in the market today and are being preserved with much greater care and documentation than any comparable coins from archaeological excavations.
Common sense should confirm that private collecting of ancient coins and artifacts is a useful, legitimate and productive activity. But, we cannot rely on common sense to protect our rights. If we do not become proactive, we will surely become the victims of propaganda on one hand and paranoia on the other. Without a legitimate and reliable market, it would be impossible to collect in any serious way. If we do not act against these threats to the market, we may as well start looking for a new pastime.
The Celator is our link to each other and the best platform that we have for expressing our views in a united front. It is also our voice to the outside world. But, the publication can do nothing without our tangible support. Dealers and collectors alike should do all they can to bolster this medium or surely we will be divided and conquered. We need to get vocal about this issue and let the world know that we have earned the right to collect, research and admire coins in our own private collections. At the very least, write a letter to the editor of this publication and sound off. You never know who might be listening.