Collectors versus Archologists and Museums

Discussion in 'Coin Chat' started by cplradar, Sep 18, 2021.

  1. cplradar

    cplradar Talmud Chuchum

    This is a thread I found on another forum that displays the essential conflict over and antiquities that exists in Numismatics. There are aspects to the discussion that I find very sad, not the least of which is that the impulse to collect is very much the same impulse that we have to discover and create artifacts and even explore history.

    Your comments and observations on this would be appreciated.
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    GDJMSP Numismatist Moderator

    It is a very old debate dating back hundreds of years and one where the points of view of the sides if you will, change with the times. The recent enactment of new rules and laws governing exportation of artifacts, coins specifically, in various countries around the world for example. But at the same time each side is quite similar to the other in regard to the desired outcome.

    Archeologist, in general, seem to think that they are the only ones who should ever even be allowed to search for things like coins from history. And while I can understand why they think this way, given the relevant evidence the coins can provide, I can't necessarily agree with them simply because of that reason alone. But at the same time I also understand that the laws of the country are what decides who can and cannot search for historical artifacts, and I believe it should be that way.

    Where I think think things begin to turn a shade of grey is when things are found by accident, not by grave robbers or those seeking to "loot" historical sites, but by an ordinary person who just stumbles across something and picks it up. And later, that something, let's say it's a coin or a few coins, finds its way onto the collector market - and some collector buys it.

    Now does that make the collector a bad guy ? In my eyes it doesn't, he didn't do anything wrong, he merely bought a coin that someone was offering for sale. And he has no idea of how or where that coin was found. And nobody else does either. But, according to the point of view held by some archeologists he's a bad guy simply because he bought the coin - so he could posses it for his own collection.

    To me I can't see how that makes him much different than the archeologist because they want to be the ones to own the coins, to posses them. And yeah, they might say - well we're going to put them in a lab so we can study them and then in a museum. But does that make them any different than the collector ? I can't say that it really does in my eyes. And in point of fact in many cases the coins are better off in the hands of a collector than they are in the hands of some museum because quite often the collector knows more about to store them properly and take care of them than the museum does ! And history confirms this. And not just in historical times, but in recent times as well. For many museums even today do not store and protect coins the way they should be protected. And they often routinely subject the coins to harsh/improper cleaning. Something most collectors would never do.

    Then you have another side of the equation where museums might own coins for a while only to later sell them - to collectors. The very people they were trying to keep the coins from in the beginning. And that, that just makes me sit and shake my head in wonder because it's supposed to be alright to do that ! But it's not alright for the collectors to own them from the get go.

    In simplest terms you have the two sides of the debate. One side says - I want to own them because .... - and the other sides says - well I want to own them because .... . So who's right and who's wrong ? I don't know that either one is, or isn't. I merely know that they disagree on who should own them.

    And the law, well you can't make laws that say it's illegal to collect coins because if you did you'd have to make laws that say you can't collect anything. And doing that would open a can of worms that nobody wants to see opened because then the museums couldn't collect anything either.

    And that, it leaves us with why this debate is so old and why it's been going on for so long, and most probably why it always will be going on.
  4. Oldhoopster

    Oldhoopster Member of the ANA since 1982

    Doug gave an excellent summary.

    Here is a worthwhile organization that supports ancient coin collectors

    No one will argue that many ancient works of art, architecture, etc are cultural heritage. But coins are different. They are not unique items, they were used for commerce. The were minted by the tens of thousands and with the 4th century AE bronzes, possibly by the millions. Should these coins be held only by museums, continuing to corrode until they find the labor and funds to conserve them or should collectors be allowed to own, and conserve, and study these pieces?
    Roman Collector likes this.
  5. Jim Dale

    Jim Dale Well-Known Member

    I understand both sides of that argument as well. I didn't understand it at all until I found out the treatment of coins by Archeologists. Supposedly, the have the training to conserve things they find, but, as was said, most coin collectors either know how to conserve coins or know of a source to conserve them, basically, because of coin collectors training and the volume of coins that collectors deal with.
    I remember a 60 minutes story a while ago. There was a custodian that had worked for the Smithsonian for a great many years. Management had a great regard for his care of the displays. The custodian did not have a family, so, he had a great love for the displays. He worked at the Smithsonian until he was required by his age, to retire. A neighbor found him in his bed when his phone nor knocks on the door would arouse him. When the police finally got into his apartment, they found he in his bed, dead.
    After he had been cremated, the FBI had gotten into his apartment and found many items that were supposed to be in the Smithsonian storage facility. It turned out that the items found were in storage for many, many years, and due to his work as the custodian, he had access to all of the pieces found. After this collection was returned, the Smithsonian worked with a security analyst to develop a way that all collections, either being displayed, or in storage, have some type of badge or something like that to ensure theft of items in storage cannot be taken. Drawers, boxes, or any other type of container that houses the many collections, can only be opened with specific types of tags on the items as well as drawers or other storage devices. Movement of any object without approved security, will set off alarms that will alert the security staff that someone is moving something without approval.
    This story was on 60 Minutes several years ago. I'm sure that this story has alerted many museums and other places that store ancient items, are aware of their poor security and have taken action to avoid this type of loss.
  6. cplradar

    cplradar Talmud Chuchum

    FWIW, I don't agree with that, although I understand the sentiment. I think there should be international standards. I am sick of seeing bad actors like the Taliban blow up and destroy Buddhist cultural treasures, ISIS destroying the Ninvah ruins, the Palestinian Authority destroying evidence of Jewish roots on the Temple Mount, Napoleon shooting cannon at the Sphinx in Egypt, the Turks purposely firing Artillery at the Acropolis, etc etc etc.
    Mickey in PDX and john65999 like this.
  7. cplradar

    cplradar Talmud Chuchum

    No - it is all the same exact very human impulse. If they destroy coin collecting, and art collecting pursuits etc, they destroy the foundation for Museums and the institutions that fund and permit archeology to happen in the first place.
  8. Keith Twitchell

    Keith Twitchell Active Member

    There are other key points in this debate. One is rarity. A coin or artifact that is unique or highly unusual, and very specific to the place where it was found, should never be taken out of its country of origin. Ancient coins of which many thousands were minted, or artifacts of similar ubiquity (i.e., ushtabis), neither add to historical understanding nor diminish a country's patrimony by being offered openly on the collectors' market. One of the best models for this is England, which requires any artifact or coin found in the country to be reviewed by the appropriate authorities. If it is deemed important for archeology and history, it goes to the appropriate university, museum or other institution. If not, the person who found can keep it or sell it. This encourages responsible collecting, thwarts looters, ensures that history and national legacy are preserved, and enables individuals to possess items for their own education and wonder. I think it is also worth noting that most museums actually display a small fraction of their collections. Sometimes they have many, many examples of a coin or artifact. Is the public good better served by keeping these items in storage, or by allowing responsible collectors to enjoy them, study them, share them in photos and discussions like Coin Talk, etc.? I would say it's the latter.
    Oldhoopster likes this.
  9. cplradar

    cplradar Talmud Chuchum

    I think that archeologist would argue that they store coins for future study and that holding them allows future generations to make these studies possible. But I find that argument wholly unsatisfying. They also argue that collecting is the cause for looting. That is particularly true. Looting, of course, predates the formalized collecting by centuries and has been all about the precious metal value, and political rationals. That is why we never find ANYTHING from the tombs of ancient Egypt. Unlike what happens in the hands of collectors, nothing was ever preserved, cataloged or collected. It was the complete rape of the tombs, often with the purpose of destroying the remains.

    What is being failed to being acknowledged by our ignorant do gooders in the archeological field, is that FLAT OUT, without the interest of collectors, and the methodology of collectors, there is no science of Archeology or Museums.

    In fact, in the case of museums, they are overwhelmed with gifts from collectors, and are warehousing far too much material that for legal reasons, they can't move. It is crazy. As for Universities et al, they have a huge agenda of their own and are terrible stewards to our cultural heritage.

    Like so many other issues involving coins, the chief problem remains tracking pedigree, and cataloging, and tracking coins. Their value as commodities is very important to their value for preservation and their discovery/looting!! Everything that is done should be with an eye on creating an culture in coins of collaboration with each other and the scientific community. Anything else attacks the very heart of the process of discovery that everyone wants to encourage.

    This lecture by David Hendin discusses the real relationship between collectors and aechology in detail and how they interact in Israel in a contructive fashion, even in the context of the ethnic strife of the country and the constant threat of war.

  10. GDJMSP

    GDJMSP Numismatist Moderator

    And while I understand your thinking, you could have all the international standards you want, problem is they are completely and totally unenforceable. And besides that, what gives one country, or a group of countries, the right tell another what their laws should or should not be ?

    Think for a minute. If international standards said that you, in the US, could not collect the coins you like to collect - what would you say then ? Or that mere possession of the coins you own was suddenly illegal, and that you had to be prosecuted for owning them - would that be OK ?

    Or what if international standards suddenly said that metal detecting for coins was illegal and could no longer be done in the US, that only archeologist could search for coins - would you think that to alright too ?

    No matter what side of the fence stands on regarding this situation, it's a very complicated and complex situation with no easy answers.

    As for me personally, when it comes to stuff like this I kind of fall back to an old saying - if it aint broke, don't fix it. And as I see it, it aint broke. Of course, some others may not see it that way.
    cplradar likes this.
  11. Conder101

    Conder101 Numismatist

    One more thing to note, if the item is declared treasure and it goes to a museum, university etc, the finder is still compensated for the market value of the item. So the finder CAN'T lose, he either gets the item or he gets paid for it. The only way he can lose is if he doesn't report it in which case if he is found out it can be confiscated and I believe he can be fined for the market value. It really encourages the reporting of finds, the finder wins, and the archeologists have a chance to work the find site.
    cplradar likes this.
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