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Vol 02 No. 10 October 1988

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About This File

It is inevitable that opinions will differ over an issue as emotional as the "smuggling" of coins or antiquities. This is an issue which not only arouses one's inner sensitivities, but, on at least one occasion, has presented a threat of financial impact. It is an emotional issue of long-standing concern, and unfortunately a problem of equally long-standing resistance to solution. It is, at the core, a question of ethics and law which many would prefer to ignore.

Many countries, throughout the world, have laws prohibiting the exportation of antiquities. These laws are ostensibly for the purpose of preserving each nation's cultural treasures. In the Mediterranean lands, these laws seem to have evolved at least partly in reaction to widespread looting of the region's archaeological sites by foreign "archaeologists" and "antiquarians " of the past two centuries. The famous lords, knights, and diplomats who "discovered" a world of art treasure at exotic historical sites may have provided rich endowments for European and American museums, but they also kindled a bitter resentment which the most inconspicuous collector in modem times has still to contend with. As a result, the exportation of a single coin, once struck by the millions, or a single scrap of discarded pottery from some ancient dump site, may be treated with disdain equal to that of Lord Elgin's stripping of the Parthenon.

We do not advocate the violation of any law, imposed by any sovereign nation, regardless of its irrationality. We do, however, believe that there are good laws and there are bad laws. There are some laws still on the books in this country that should have been abolished a hundred years ago.

Likewise, we bell eve that the unyielding and all-encompassing provisions of certain antiquities laws make them bad laws. They do, in fact, encourage violation rather than compliance.

Buyers of antiquities, including ancient coins, are usually not in a position to know or judge with any degree of certainty the conditions under which an object came to be offered in the marketplace. There are many countries which do not regulate the sale of artifacts, and these include some of the countries in which classical antiquities are commonly found. The attributable origin of an object holds no key to its provenance since coins and antiquities were widely dispersed in ancient times through natural diffusion. For hundreds of years prior to the advent of modern antiquities laws, artifacts were also dispersed by a host of' antiquarians. Indeed, many coins offered for sale today have "pedigrees" indicating that they have been in the hands of (European or American collectors longer than the modern governments. and antiquities laws, of their countries of origin have existed.

It is not incumbent upon the dealer or buyer of a coin to try to ascertain how it happened to arrive at its present geographical location. In fact, it is usually impossible to do so, even when determining the provenance would be desirable. Whether it is an ethical responsibility of the dealer to try to discourage smuggling is another question.

From a legal and practical point of view, there is little to be concerned about in regard to the origin of coins purchased by most collectors. Any buyer seeing an ethical question may ask the dealer about provenance but will probably receive an honest "I don't know" in response. Coins often change hands so many times between their find site and the collector that keeping track is out of the question. In the case of a bronze statue by Lysippus. or a black-figure vase by Euphronius or Exekias. there may be some cause for concern about the provenance and its appearance in the marketplace. With coins, only a Decadrachm Hoard or its equivalent could arouse the same concern. Since most collectors are not going to make an acquisition of that caliber, the question is essentially moot. It would be pointless to lose any sleep pondering the source of an Alexander tetradrachm.

Anyone with ethical reservations about the collecting of ancient coins would do well to keep in mind that they have been collected for at least 2,300 years by kings, princes, popes, priests, philosophers, scholars, students, emperors, archaeologists, diplomats, etc., etc., from all over the world. Collectors of ancient coins have contributed greatly to the understanding of our political, economic and cultural history.

Ethically, ancient coins belong to the whole world - they always have, and they always will.

Don't forget to order your "Best of The Celator" annual, and while you're addressing an envelope anyway - let us hear your point of view!


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