Thursday, July 17, 2008

Very Low Cost Antiquities Registries

Ed Snible has this thought-provoking post on his blog:

It would be interesting to hear what others think, particularly any coin dealers out there. Coin dealers tend to have very large inventories. Even smaller ones can have 10,000-20,000 coins on hand at any given time. Given the numbers, I suspect many of them will consider this plan to be impractical. On the other hand, if there is demand for "registered coins" won't there be a financial incentive to supply them to the marketplace?

Registering coins would presumably be easier for collectors. Collectors tend to hold hundreds not thousands of coins. Still, registering even that number could be both time consuming and at least somewhat expensive. Nevertheless, such registries could also be used for insurance purchases.

Overall, any plan of this nature would probably need some form of government blessing. Very few will undertake such a task without it. Of course, under current law, date stamping a picture of a coin today won't help you much to prove a coin of Cypriot type was out of the country before import restrictions were imposed last year.

And what of the archaeological community? The AIA and other archaeological organizations seem stuck on idea that the ownership history of any artifact must be traced back almost 40 years to 1970 before they will (with some reluctance) consider it "legitimate." Obviously, registering a coin today will do little to assuage ideologues hung up on a 1970 date based upon when the UNESCO Convention was promulgated.

One final thought. Why not also require archaeologists to use an identical system to record coins found at excavations? At the very least, registries of coins from all sources would give us some idea of how many ancient coins are actually out there.

Despite my concerns, I think this idea merits serious discussion.


Nathan Elkins said...

Dear Peter,

I think this would be an excellent step in the right direction. Certainly, it would be difficulty to provide a pre-1970 date for the vast majority of material, but if we are all concerned about the recently looted material that enters the marketplace, then we could at least setup a deadline by which all existing material on should be registered (for example, one year after the creation of a database). I think this would help prevent recently looted material from entering the market. If the trade community could unite behind such a scheme and have stringent rules against non-registered material that was not legally exported, I think it would go a long towards assuaging the concerns of many. I hope this will be seriously discussed further.

By the way, coin finds are widely documented and put in databases. Germany has been publishing inventories of coin finds in the blue volumes,Fundmünzen der römischen Zeit,since the 1960's and has also started entering finds into an internet database. The coins I have been identifying from the Martberg, for example, will appear both in the online database and in the printed volume. Switzerland, Luxembourg, Austria, Croatia, Hungary, the Netherlands and the Netherlands, for example, have also been publishing similar inventories, and several of these have also provided online databases. There is an online database of coin finds from Wales. I am also aware that Belgium has a database of all excavated coin finds (not yet online) as does Israel (again not yet online). There is also an inventory of coin finds from the Italian region of Veneto and the important coin finds from the sottosuolo in Rome await publication. Hopefully, other nations will soon begin following the example of these countries. Many already probably have inventories that consist of index cards or that are un-published.

All best,

Nathan Elkins said...

I forgot that Slovenia also has been publishing inventories (no online database yet as far as I'm aware) and I also forgot to mention that Hans-Christoph Noeske has published two very important volumes analyzing and inventorying coin finds from Egypt (the first includes finds from parts of Israel, Jordan, and Syria).


Ed Snible said...

I'll post more on this, but briefly:

Agreed this doesn't solve the desire to have pre-1970 provenances, or pre Cypriot import restrictions. This is about future restrictions. Also, it is possible that "the market" the AIA, and the law could have a cease-fire around a new date year, as I believe MacKenzie suggets Going Going Gone: Regulating the Trade in Illicit Antiquities (don't have the book handy right now).

Do many dealers really have 10k of ancient coins in stock? I ask this because I collect mostly coins with gorgoneions, and I often write dealers asking if they have any such coins not in their online inventory, and only one (Harlan J Berk) had any. At coins shows like NYINC I'll search dealer trays for coins with gorgoneions and I've usually seen them online before seeing them in person.

Time Consuming? Many dealers already take digital pictures (for printed catalogs, eBay, VCoins, etc.) I can imagine integrating a procedure like timestamp notary right into the workflow so the camera operator doesn't even know it is happening. That's effectively zero-time. For things like the "$10 junk box" an idea is to put 100 junk ancients on a flatbed scanner and click a button.

Better records might be a business opportunity for dealers. CNG's website already has a "Research" which is a free resource but perhaps drives traffic to the web site. But imagine a dealer offering, for free or a small free, to keep a user's purchases together. The dealer could then charge the user to print out a booklet of his collection, the way web sites like QOOP print out booklets and posters for photographers of their Flickr photos. Dealers could also offer their customers a package to send the details of purchases to a collector inventory website such as Either the dealer or could obtain timestamp notarization for a small fee.

Nathan where are these online registries? I wish to search them for rare coins with gorgoneions!

Cultural Property Observer said...

I received this comment from the current editor of the Celator, Kerry Wetterstrom. He gave me permission to publish it on this blog:

Hi Peter,

I don’t think it would be practical for the dealer that handles tens of thousands of coins each year. He would have to hire an employee just to take the photos, and in the case of cheap hoard coins, not too cost effective. Of course, if we were forced to “register” our coins, then Ed’s idea does have merit.


Cultural Property Observer said...

For more on this, see Ed Snible's blog at: and

Also, see Nathan Elkins' blog at:

Nathan Elkins said...

Peter and Ed,

I don`t have regular internet access over the weekends, but on Monday I`ll post links to these electronic databases. These inventories of excavated finds frome these regions are best for Roman coinage, but there is typically a good amount of Celtic material with lesser amounts of Greek coinage.