The Numismatic Bibliomania Society



The E-Sylum: Volume 17, Number 27, June 29, 2014, Article 20


Also via the Explorator newsletter is this Science Daily article blaming coin looting on collectors. -Editor

Smoking gun coin illustration Millions of ancient looted coins from archaeological excavations enter the black market yearly, and a Baylor University researcher who has seen plundered sites likens the thefts to stealing "smoking guns" from crime scenes. But those who collect and study coins have been far too reluctant to condemn the unregulated trade, he says.

"Archaeologists are detectives. When something has been taken away from a historical site, the object is divorced from its relationship with other objects, and its utility for the writing of history -- much like solving a criminal case -- is diminished," said Nathan Elkins, Ph.D., assistant art professor in Baylor's College of Arts & Sciences. Elkins is the staff numismatist at the excavations of an ancient synagogue from the Roman/Byzantine period in Huqoq, Israel. He has written an article, "Investigating the Crime Scene: Looting and Ancient Coins," that appears in the current issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

Numismatists -- those who study or collect such currency as coins, tokens, paper money and even such trade objects as shells or lambskins -- must not condone or, worse, encourage that destructive behavior, Elkins said.

Coins are among objects stolen and sold through the multi-billion-dollar black market in antiquities. The New York Times recently reported looting in Spain and also in Egypt, where looters have taken advantage of political upheaval to steal thousands of objects from unprotected sites and even a national museum. The U.S. market alone imports "hundreds of thousands of earth-encrusted coins annually that are smuggled from Balkan nations such as Bulgaria," Elkins says.

Coins taken in such illegal and secretive excavations and touted with fake histories are easy to find in auction catalogs and online storefronts -- and inexpensive to boot, he said. "'Common' coins such as these may sell for the price of a fast-food lunch, but they're invaluable sources to archaeologists and historians," he said. When discovered beneath floors, foundations or wells, they provide information about how people lived and behaved in the past and can date occupation levels and monuments. Elkins noted that there is "a widespread demand for biblical coins on account of their associations with Judaism, Christianity and the Bible, which of course exacerbates the looting problem. And the intellectual and material consequences of looting biblical coins are equally severe as that of Roman imperial coins and Greek coins."

For some coin collectors, obtaining coins of questionable origin is a matter of short-sightedness, he said. The origin and history of a coin may be irrelevant to them if their interest is merely in its image, rarity and method of production.

Some scholars and collectors may be hesitant to question a coin's background for fear of alienating dealers or other collectors, Elkins said. And, to be fair, some coins are in public or private collections with no recorded history rather than having been illegally obtained and passed off with a fake history, he said.

Elkins said that most collectors have "a genuine passion" for ancient history, but they must be more assertive and conscientious in reporting suspected illegal activity, insisting on the provenance of coins and avoiding giving money to those who buy from looters and smugglers.

To read the complete article, see: 'Smoking gun' ancient coins are being looted from excavations (

I doubt there are many numismatists who would deny that the coin marketplace creates incentives for looters. The problem for numismatists is the push to assume guilt on the part of a collector who can't prove that his coin WASN'T looted at some point in its 2,000 year history. I don't like Asian sweatshops either, but without worldwide regulation and oversight there's no way I could ever prove my T-shirt wasn’t made in one. The haters are putting the cart before the horse.

At least the Science Daily article is professionally written, unlike the snarky tone of this screed against Ras Suarez, author of The Encyclopedia of Roman Imperial Coins . -Editor

Over on the Biblical Archaeological Review blog a gaggle of coineys has converged to discuss "preserving provenance" of dugup antiquities (or rather why they say we should not bother, because it's bad for business). Rasiel Suarez goes on to suggest that ancient coin collectors are not only passionately interested in history, but have "skills in conservation and a desire to preserve and reconnect with the past". The dealer then goes on to say that in his opinion, "illicit does not equate to immoral", which will be news to many people I am sure.

He tries to claim that the onus is on the critics to show why there are negatives in the no-questions buying of dugup artefacts of unknown origins and collecting history. In the same way I am sure there are dealers in such things who might raise the same points about cars, bikes and firearms with filed off serial numbers, but I think the rest of us can see through this line of argument. Personally I would steer clear of any dealer in any commodity who was expecting me to buy possibly illicit stuff ‘blind’ like that.

What are missing from their offer are coins from the UK, where detecting on archaeological sites is legal, objects reported by responsible finders to the PAS and exported (as the law requires) with a UK export licence. Now, why would that be? Why are these Dirty Old Coins so "surprisingly affordable"? What about the export licences here? Why is there absolutely no (as in zero) information about this on the Dirty Old Coins website? Now, you can get Bulgarian export licences, I saw some at the Warsaw coin show last year, so has Mr Suarez and his partners got them for these coins? And where did they come from? How did they get on the market in the first place? The old apotropaic formula "Old collection, predating the legislation and conventions" really seems difficult to apply here, to Dirty Old Coins, still dirt-encrusted.

'PAS" is the Portable Antiquities Scheme, a perfect example of the better regulation and oversight needed worldwide. In my time living in London I began to feel that there was no more civilized place anywhere in the world, and the PAS is another fine piece of evidence for that thesis. The PAS leverages market forces IN FAVOR of archeology and conservation by ensuring that finders have a strong economic incentive to report their finds to the authorities. Absent such an incentive (as in most of the rest of the world), finders quickly become looters and only looters want to find. The Jersey hoard discussed elsewhere in this issue is a prime example. Hoards like this discovered in any other place would never be reported, and end up smuggled out of the country, landing anonymously in collections worldwide with no legitimate provenance chain. -Editor

To read the complete article, see: Dirty Old Coin Dealings (

Explorator editor David Meadows invented a new word, the plural of E-Sylum, in his preface to a collection of links to "Three weeks' worth of e-Syla"

"EXPLORATOR is a free weekly newsletter bringing you the latest news of archaeological finds, historical research and the like." To subscribe to Explorator (a great newsletter!), send a blank email message to: . -Editor

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Wayne Homren, Editor

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