Coins and Culture
From The Celator, May 2005.
Wayne G. Sayles, "Through the Looking Glass" |
May 01, 2005
Last summer I received a letter from a Celator reader living in Syria. It has been sitting on my desk in front of me for some nine months now. The letter bore no name or return address, but it is one of those things that you look at and keep thinking that you should do something about it. It reads:
"Dear Mr. Wayne G. Sayles, I like your 'Through the Looking Glass', especially that of 'Hijacked by Zealots' [ The Celator, Aug. 2004] who are very active here and had succeeded in making the people [miserable?], the farmers who after every rainy season find on their farms and fields, coins of the invaders of this land: Greeks, Romans, Byzantines and others — and they pretend that it is a 'heritage'! Thank you very much for the simplicity with which you deal with English! It is helpful for people like me — or you don't care because I am an Arab? I wish I could express myself in English better, because I need not to invent stories about rarities, I have them daily but nobody to talk about them with and Sear, Seaby, Kankelfitz and Küthman's catalogues can not help either and President Bush has made it not easy for you and me to be friends? Once again thanks and good luck."
While world organizations, special interest groups, politicians, bureaucrats, media reporters and idealistic pedantics harangue private collecting as the greatest evil since Attila or Ivan the Terrible, this letter reveals a side of the story that the great decision makers of the world seem completely to have missed. COINS BRING PEOPLE TOGETHER! If the ownership of ancient coins is restricted to museums and archaeological site storage facilities, then the only people who will be brought together are the academics who control them. Going to a museum, as enjoyable and educational as that in itself is, will not bridge the culture gap like direct contact between private collectors who share their experiences and build lasting bonds that transcend national, religious or ethnic boundaries.
Coins were invented for the purpose of exchange. Many of them were intended from the very beginning of their use to be exported outside of the country in which they were produced. Some coins, like Athenian tetradrachms, Corinthian staters, tetradrachms of Alexander the Great, Abbasid dirhams, Venetian ducats, Maria Theresa talers and even U.S. trade dollars were circulated widely outside of their country of origin. Some of them, in fact, still circulate in parts of the world today.
Even though the motivation for this circulation is economic, a byproduct is the natural curiosity which all of us have when we see a coin from some distant land. It is a normal human condition, and it has been so for millennia.
World powers become so through economic success, which has for thousands of years been measured in trade. Consequently, successful trading countries produced staggering amounts of coinage to facilitate international commerce. To think of such a coin in terms of "significant cultural property", that is, to think of each and every one of them as being critical to the understanding of a people's or place's history, requires a mindset completely detached from reality. One might as well claim that all the jars used to send olive oil from Greece to America in the 19th century are national treasures of Greece. As a matter of fact, that is exactly the claim that China has made in their recent request for U.S. import restrictions. That request includes (along with coins) the massive output of China's ceramic pottery industry of the 19th century—which was shipped all over the world and in many cases was used as utilitarian containers. Anything over 100 years old is under attack!
One Chinese pot, admired for its beauty, or one Athenian coin admired for its history by a collector in the United States can do a tremendous amount to foster cultural relations between nations. Storing millions of either pots or coins serves no useful purpose, but free private ownership of a single piece does. Ownership is a catalyst to study and many of the greatest numismatic studies would not exist today if not for the fact that private individuals owned and studied coins. Collaboration between private collectors from widely disparate cultures is commonplace in the numismatic world, and many lifelong friendships have been born and nurtured in the process of sharing information about coins.
To our friend in Syria, I say: We share your interest in the past and we want to know more about the people who lived on your land throughout the ages as well as about the people who live there today. We do not think of you as Muslim, or Arab, we think of you as a person who finds joy in the same things that we do. While those who control our lives search for ways to control the entire universe, we merely seek the freedom to study and learn on our own. We feel that knowledge is not something to be shepherded by a few. It should not be "controlled" by artificial certifications or managed by international conventions. The world does not need stewards of knowledge and we should be vocal in telling those who would impose that burden upon us that we will not abide their usurpation of our personal rights.