I rarely venture into the world of ancient coins, simply because it is not a particularly large part of the coin collecting scene in this country.
However, I have been following for years the ongoing battle between collectors and academics over the right to own and collect ancient coins. For those of you who haven’t been following the issue, here it is in a nutshell.
The academic community is concerned about treasure hunters looting tombs and historical sites for coins and other artifacts to sell to collectors. This is a very reasonable and valid concern because much of the value of an artifact comes from its context, where it is located in terms of other items to determine its age, use, and perhaps history. Nobody but the most callous mercenary can endorse looting historical sites for collectors.
However, there was a time when it was common practice to do exactly that. Museums around the world are filled with mummies, ceramics, statues, and even entire building facades hauled away over the past 200 years. Understandably, many countries view these items, including coins, as part of their national heritage and are endeavouring to have them returned, and to stop any further loss of their history. The result is that artifacts without a clear provenance dating back a number of years are being viewed as stolen property.
Remember, this isn’t just coins we are talking about, but just about anything portable.
When it comes to coins there are challenges in making this work. Britain, which has some of the most sensible laws in the world when it comes to archeology and treasure hunting by metal detector, offers an example. A famed British numismatist who goes by the name Geoffrey Cope bought a sestertius of Hadrian in 1980. The coin has been consigned by a reputable numismatic firm in Italy, which said it believed it had been in an old collection. The unique coin shows the emperor honouring Roman troops in Britain and represents a matter of historical uniqueness. Cope had loaned it for display at the British Museum, but in 2012 the museum decided to cancel the display because the coin did not have a provenance going back to before 1970. Suddenly, this coin was a pariah in the academic world.
The story has a happy ending: because the coin was so special, it was the subject of numismatic study and a researcher discovered that a photograph of the coin appeared in a 1906 auction catalogue in Italy. The sale was the collection of a numismatist who died in 1904, so it could be credibly provenanced back to the late 1800s. The owner was fortunate that this was a special coin. A century ago photography was a time-consuming and costly process and most coins were simply described using words. In the 1904 catalogue, only about 10 per cent of the coins were illustrated. That means that literally thousands of common ancient coins, the kind most often bought by collectors, have no attributable provenance and will be assumed to be stolen. In many cases the coins have been seized, usually when they enter or leave a country when they change hands.
My point here is that the assumption is made that any coin without a provenance going back more than 40 years is assumed to be recently stolen. The bur-den is on the owner to prove the coin was legitimately acquired, not on authorities to prove the coins were stolen.
It is a basic belief of common law that a person is presumed to be innocent until proven guilty. Apparently numismatists are not people.