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Vol 07 No. 11 November 1993

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About This File

This month, infallibility-or perhaps one should say the lack of it- seems to be the catchword. Media reporters headlined the latest Vatican encyclical which conspicuously omits the church's claim to Papal infallibility. This was, of course, a major departure from traditional Vatican dialogue. In a sense, the ancient coin collecting fraternity has experienced a simi lar phenomenon. While matters of the hobby may be less consequential than matters of the soul, there are times when we too need to reevaluate our processes and thinking.
Pliny, in the first century A.D., commented extensively on art and collecting among the Romans. One of his observations details the proliferation of forgeries among collectible art works (and presumably coins) during his age. Pliny, and his art conscious contemporaries, were relegated to their own senses as toots for detecting counterfeits, yet they apparently became successful.
With the passage of time, the tools of deception became more sophisticated, and collectors began to rely more and more on scientific analysis as a means of detection. Nonetheless, scientific instruments can only measure conditions. It is still necessary for an interpreter to anaIyze the data acquired and apply that data in problem solving situations. In the case of detecting ancient coin forgeries, one must establish a model against which the data is measured. We must know, for example, the metallurgical composition of a genuine specimen. Next, we must measure the composition of the suspect piece and compare it to the known standard. If it differs, we must evaluate the type of difference and the potential causes. If we cannot determine a natural cause the coin is certainly suspect. Likewise, if the comparison indicates that the composition is appropriate, we must ask ourselves whether it is possible for the forger to have duplicated this process. If not, the coin is probably authentic.
The problem with scientific analysis is that researchers and counterfeiters play a never-ending game of "leapfrog". As soon as the scientific community develops a new analytical tool, forgers seek and usually find a method of detection avoidance. It is grossly inaccurate to characterize modem counterfeiters (as did a Coin World feature) as ignorant peasants laboring in a mud hut in some Eastern European or Mediterranean country. Granted, there are counterfeiters of this ilk, but their products are of no concern to us.
Along with the tools provided to us by science, collectors have continued to rely over the centuries on basic instincts driven by experience, education, and the human senses. When I was a young boy. my grandfather taught me to hunt with a shotgun. One would think that hitting something would be easy with all those pellets flying about. Take my word for it, it is not easy! I did eventually become proficient with a shotgun, because of my grandfather's wise advice -"Don 't Aim". Instinct replaces the front sight of a shotgun. This is not to say that one never misses, but the percentage of hits is dramatically improved if one follows basic instincts.
Perhaps we should return to the point of this dissertation. Science is not infallible. In fact, aiming too precisely may increase the chances of error. This is precisely what occurred in the scientific analysis of the Black Sea Hoard. Al though the conditions measured, and the data recorded were undoubtedly accurate, the premise that these conditions could not be duplicated was flawed. Because someone put a front sight on the shotgun, instinct became secondary in the process of aiming.
The instinct that needs to be considered in matters of this sort is emotion. One does not spend a lifetime studying and handling ancient coins without developing some emotional instincts. These instincts are often accurate and valuable. Although they were scoffed at by the scientific proponent of the Black Sea Hoard's authenticity, in the final analysis it was instinct that prevailed. In the most current bulletin of the International Bureau for the Suppression of Counterfeit Coins (IBSCC, the anti-forgery committee of the IAPN has re considered the authenticity of the "Black Sea Hoard" diobols and boldly condemned the pieces as modem forgeries. This action by one of the hobby's most conservative and respected agencies in effect an acknowledgement of scientific fallibility-was certainly not spontaneous or impulsive.
We highly commend the IBSCC for its courage and integrity in carefully reconsidering this issue. Fortunately, we can all learn something from this experience, and we heartily echo the sentiment of the IBSCC. "What this imbroglio teaches us is that we should continue to rely on our eyes rather than always turning to scientific props."
It is with very mixed emotions that we witness this month the retirement of Tom McKenna from the numismatic profession. We hold the greatest respect for Tom, both as a numismatist and as a friend. He is a remarkable person with strong values and matchless integrity. In seven years of attending national shows and communicating with the vast majority of collectors and dealers in this field, we have never heard a single complaint or criticism of Tom. This is no small achievement, believe me! Since we are both retired military officers, Tom and I have had much in common. He too is a victim of wanderlust and we have shared many reminiscences. Included in this issue is a short but insightful and humorous narrative that Tom sent to us last year. It seems appropriate. Maybe we can reverse the trend and convert him into a collector? Godspeed Tom!
Next month's Point of View comes to you via satellite from Turkey!

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