The story that everyone has been waiting for finally was released to the public this July as Connoisseur magazine published an article by Ozen Acar and Melik Kaylan outlining their tale of "intrigue" surrounding the origin and sale of coins from the famed Decadrachm Hoard of 1984. The Connoisseur article was also reprinted in the July 6 issue of Coill World.
Although collectors have for many years witnessed the capricious nature of governments in the Mediterranean area, never has one of those governments touched us quite so close to home. The idea that one might be subject to forfeiting a collectible, bought in good faith. because another nationality considers it a part of their cultural heritage, is more than a little disconcerting. For those who may have been vacationing in the Falkland Islands over the past year. the Turkish government is attempting to retrieve the contents of the Decadrachm Hoard claiming theft of cultural patrimony.
Having lived in Turkey for two years, it is my observation that the vast majority of modern inhabitants of that country are concerned very little with the preservation of a cultural heritage belonging to them little more than it belongs to the Chinese or the Finlanders. They are. in fact, mostly interested in Greek, Roman and Byzantine artifacts only so far as those trinkets of the past produce a cash flow in a land where four-digit annual incomes are above the norm.
It has also been my observation that the application of law in that country is often a product of influence or the lack of it. Violators of certain laws seem only to be apprehended if their ability to influence is not sufficient, or if they have offended the wrong person.
Why then are we so concerned with the Turkish government's attempts to retrieve those coins known as The Decadrachm Hoard? If they left that country illegally, so have tens of thousands more. Let's face it. none of the ancient coins we see on the world market were released to collectors by the Turkish government.
Of course, it is impossible for anyone to prove the origin of 99% of the ancient coins bought and sold every day, so the danger of losing one's prized tetradrachm is not very real. In the case of the Decadrachm Hoard, we may have that elusive 1% whose origin can be proven. Very bad luck it seems for the parties concerned.
What is particularly bothersome to me, is that the notoriety of this case has implicitly branded all collectors of ancient coins as accomplices to smugglers and ne'er do wells. Is there an ethical question here to be addressed? If we should boycott Krugerands, perhaps we should also boycott all ancient coins struck in Anatolian cities or Greek cities or Italian cities. Perhaps we all should collect Celtic coins or British hammered coins. But what if the British government tightened up its view of cultural patrimony? Is it safe to collect American Indian arrowheads? Don't laugh, that may be in danger too.
As a nation, we have a strange propensity to burden ourselves with guilt for any number of the world's supposed ills. The "theft" of antiquities sounds ominous enough, but I, for one, refuse to feel guilty about owning and cherishing my own little piece of classical Greek or Roman art. It's my cultural heritage too, and if someone who cares less about it wants to trade it to me for a few greenbacks they'll always find me a willing buyer.
I find nothing objectionable about a government trying to preserve the best of its treasures for national museums and public enjoyment, but the total ban on export of antiquities does little to achieve that objective. It does, in fact, encourage an illicit trade. I think it is time the governments of these countries take a more realistic view concerning the exportation of ancient coins and artifacts. The past belongs to mankind, not just to the particular authority governing a locality.
Governments come and go, but there have been collectors of ancient coins since the third century BC. I suspect that there will still be collectors of ancient coins long after the present regimes in those Mediterranean countries have perished.
Our letterbag this month was filled with interesting exchanges. If you have opinions or useful tips that you would like to share - Let us hear your point of view!