Recently, many metal detectorists have been opining that antiquities in British museums should be repatriated to their source countries. Some may feel that’s a bizarre call from a hobby that involves digging up tens of thousands of artefacts like these…
and sending them to the United States, for money. Just how bizarre has just come to light – in pictures. Here is a link to a number of remarkable images showing off the latest consignment of British Roman coins recently dug up and supplied to an American dealer.
It’s hard to count them but it looks like there are thousands. They beg the compelling questions: where exactly did each of them come from, have they been recorded with the Portable Antiquities Scheme and in what precise circumstances were they dug up and exported? No answers are provided. We also wonder what the metal detectorists earned for their kindness, bearing in mind the dealer is selling them for $2.90 each.
Interestingly, we reckon they probably add up to about 20% of the total number of artefacts our artefact erosion counter suggests are dug up in a month – and maybe 50% of the Roman coins it implies for that period. But our Counter expresses our estimate of the output of ten thousand detectorists, whereas that lot was supplied by just a few of them presumably. For the avoidance of doubt, this is the same Artefact Erosion Counter that metal detectorists, to a man, say is a ludicrously exaggerated and a pack of lies!
So, it seems metal detectorists feel that in the case of stuff in museums repatriation to source countries is morally correct, but that this lofty principle doesn’t apply to stuff they dig up fresh from goodness-knows-where. The right thing to do with that, it seems, is to depatriate it, in mind-boggling quantities, for oodles of cash!
“In response to the inquiry by the PAS, seller Tony Jaworksi of Common Bronze indicated that the British coins he is selling were procured from a large number of detectorists (some actual collectors and some not) and assumes that they were accumulated over a year or more. He does not have any knowledge as to whether the coins were recorded under the PAS or not. He did not obtain an export license and stated he was unaware of the need for one.”
Well, no surprise there then! Still, all those that made it all possible did it for the love of history no doubt!
[Above image from Paul Barford's Blog, Portable Antiquity Collecting and Heritage issues]
As an adjunct to the above story we thought we’d take the unusual step of reproducing here in full a survey carried out by Paul Barford of the ancient coins being offered on Ebay just this morning. It’s well worth reading. Anyone who tells you this isn’t a scandal and a world cultural catastrophe and that Britain isn’t one of the major victims or that a significant number of British metal detectorists aren’t up to their eyeballs in the process isn’t telling the truth, for their own purposes. In our view something really ought to be done about it - and a lot more than is being done at present.
“Given the unseemly fuss I mentioned here which was being kicked up last week by some US dealers about just two lots of “English dugups” being discussed by Frankfurt University numismatist Nathan Elkins, I thought I would take a look to see how typical of the material being offered for sale this morning they actually are.
On Monday morning at 7.00 am CET on eBay there were 6875 items being offered in the “Ancient coins” section of eBay(US) of which 721 finish in the next 24 hours. Some of these coins are fakes, many are single offers of selected cleaned coins. Others however are similar to those being sold by the three dealers discussed in these pages and by Nathan Elkins earlier. These are multiple lots of coins of less select condition, many are roughly cleaned or still have layers of earth on them. Most of these seem likely to be the remains of bulk shipments to the seller from which more presentable coins have been selected for individual sale. Most of them are described as “lots”, which is the search term I used. The eBay search engine told me that this morning there were 446 bulk lots of coins on sale in eBay’s “ancient coins” category. That is quite disturbing if we take into account that some of them are “1000” coins, “500 coins”, “hundreds of coins” or a “kilogramme of ancient coins”. Matters are not so simple however; looking through these 446 lots (and I did) shows that not all are multiple dugups, a number are single coins, two coins or three similar coins (usually semi-clean of cleaned, so potentially from the splitting up of old ordered collections). I decided to ignore groups of three or less coins. Most of the ones I saw though were considerably more.
The breakdown of these coins was interesting, there were a large number of lots of Roman coins. There were was 232 Imperial, 33 “provincial” and 34 “Republican” (though in the case of bulk lots the division between the three was somewhat fuzzy, judging from the photos, the sellers of these items do not really have any idea of what the word “Republican” means in Roman numismatics – which in itself is telling). In total, on eBay this morning there were thus 299 lots of Roman coins – mostly uncleaned and many cases the seller exclaiming they were “direct from the excavator” and not infrequently specifying a region of the Balkans as the source.
There were 18 lots of Byzantine coins listed and another 18 in eBay stores. The coins from “Biblical Times” (so from the area of modern Palestine) were scattered throughout several categories (primarily “Other” and “Greek”) when collected together there were 22, mostly so-called “widow’s mites” (how could they not be?). What is interesting is the eBay seller definition of the word “Medieval”. Being a medievalist, I was particularly interested in this category, but although eBay reckons it is selling 19 lots, there were really only seven (including a group from Poland but these were post-Medieval in fact). We are constantly told that collecting coins is a “gateway to history” (or some such claptrap). Well, here is aperiod of coin-rich history about a thousand years long which does not seem to be eliciting much interest and are invisible to the homegrown numismoscholars of eBay-land.
More interesting still was the section labeled “Greek”. This encapsulates very nicely the extent of the problems with the ancient coin trade. Misrepresentations abounded here. The first lot I clicked on were egregious [Bulgarian] fakes of Istrian (Istros, Thrace) coins. The second were copper alloy Seated goddess/seated king coins of Kashmir (like these ) of which there were several lots by the same seller mislabeled “Greek”. As mentioned above there were some Judean in this category too. In the end I discovered there were seven lots of Greek coins, though this includes two lots of Athenian tetradrachms being sold from Dubai and looking for all the world as part of a hoard (similar lots have been sold from here in the past both on eBay and V-coins). There is a section of ancient coins called “Persian, Indian and Asian” which has three real “lots” but 80 in eBay stores, mostly from India (which as we know restricts export of such material). Again Dubai is a source of some of the bigger lots in this and the next category, Islamic, today 20 lots. China the subject of the ACCG coin import stunt is represented by 12 lots (six listed, six stores) including three which would be covered by the US MOU if no paperwork is provided. I am sure though it was/will be.
What is significant is that most of the larger lots are clearly being offered by US sellers. This is more evidence that large quantities of the erdfrisch coins now entering the market are going to the American market. We should remember that many bulk lots of “dugups” are sold outside ebay from bulk sellers to smaller dealers or advertised on lists like “uncleaned coins”.
ACCG President Bill Puetz’s V-coins hosts 138 dealers in ancient coins. Today the homepage says it has 92,238 items on sale (so that is 13 times the total volume on offer on eBay today) and the joint worth of them is over 18 million dollars (aver. 196 dollars a coin). Using the search engine to find “lots” indicates that V-coin sellers have 1455 “lots” of coins… but searching through them quickly reveals that the name covers a multitude of sins. Some of them are not coins, and many are not even artifacts. In the first page of 200 items brought up by the search 65 were not bulk lots of coins, so although I found it a depressing experience to look through the whole site, let us assume this is representative and which would mean that the number of bulk lots being offered here is somewhere about 940. That is still more than eBay.”