Sunday, June 1, 2014

One Collector's Response to "Egypt's Looted Antiquities"

The MILINET Listserve, which is read in Washington, D.C., defense and foreign policy circles, published this reaction to an opinion piece by Erin Thompson, a junior professor at CUNY's John Jay School of Law.   The writer is a defense analyst and experienced coin collector who also serves as the "First Counsel" of the Ancient Numismatic Society of Washington, D.C.   CPO notes that recent data from the PAS and Treasure Act demonstrates that Roman Egyptian Tetradrachms did circulate to some extent in far off Britain, perhaps brought there with Roman Legionaries or Auxiliaries who previously served in the region. 

MILINET: Response "Egypt’s Looted Antiquities

This article is filled with distortions and propaganda typical of academic archaeology's holy war against collectors.  To begin with, ancient "Egyptian" coins are almost entirely Greek and Roman. Although the Roman coinage of Egypt did not circulate beyond that region, the Greek coins of the Ptolemies circulated throughout the eastern Mediterranean and beyond - they are often found in Cyprus, Libya, Syria, Lebanon and Israel.

Coins were mass-produced in thousands or even millions. Museums are massively uninterested in coins which are small, hard to display, and troublesome to curate properly. The only coins usually dug up at archaeological sites are "stray finds" -- low value small change in poor condition, of no interest to collectors. Coins that enter the ancient coin market are found in "hoards" - usually a clay pot buried far away from inhabited places. Since there were no banks in the ancient world, if you wanted to keep your money safe, you buried it in a remote place. If you never went back to retrieve it, it's still there. Hoards therefore have almost no archaeological "context" - the thing that academics are always whining about when it gets disturbed.

In countries with sensible antiquities laws, like the UK, the finder and the landowner are entitled to split the fair market value of any hoard, but the national museum gets the right of first refusal on the purchase, and everything must be reported. As a result, we know more about the circulation of ancient coins in Britain than anywhere else. 

In most source countries, if you find something ancient and valuable in the ground, the police will confiscate it, it will either be tossed in a dingy storage room, or sold by corrupt cops on the black market, and you get thumped on the head for your trouble. In Italy, I was told that construction crews routinely and covertly destroy ancient finds, because if the bureaucrats find out, they will slap endless delays and expensive red tape on a project. 

Particularly in the Islamic world, the people and the governments increasingly regard all pre-Islamic artifacts as pagan abominations, and there is growing hostility toward Western archaeologists digging up reminders of cultures that practiced idolatry. Recall the tender loving care that the Taliban showed for the ancient artifacts they smashed with sledge hammers in the Kabul museum.

Mike Markowitz

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