From the Executive Director

by Ute Wartenberg Kagan

Dear Members and Friends,

In recent months, I have received quite a few comments from ANS members who have been upset about the increasingly common request for import restrictions on coins. I have so far refrained from addressing this divisive issue. However, an e-mail from a member has prompted me to speak up. This message ended by asking me to “get SERIOUS before American numismatists experience their own ‘holocaust’ at the hands of these ivory tower fascists.” This message had been preceded by an e-mail in which the phrase “Pearl Harbor of the Cultural Property War” was used. Although I understand that this is an important issue, the increasingly belligerent tone of the debate makes me wonder whether a better response and attitude may exist.

The ANS has long been a place where academics, collectors, dealers, and curators have shared their interest in coinage and other items. Numismatists are usually inclined to work with one another; there has always been a healthy exchange between coin collectors and numismatic scholars, and many great scholars were also collectors or dealers, including ANS members Edward Newell, Leo Mildenberg, and Philip Grierson, among others. The overriding principle for many numismatists is the preservation of as much information about the coins as possible, even if that information comes from auction catalogues or eBay. Die-studies, for example, would be impossible without such information.

It is perhaps for that reason that I am keenly aware of the problems that evidence from “market archaeology” brings. For us, a major concern is the loss of critical pieces of information regarding the circumstances and location of a coin’s discovery. Only with knowledge of the precise and total contents of an ancient coin hoard can we begin to determine important facts about the chronology and circulation patterns of the coins of the past. And only by knowing what coins were found where can we begin to reconstruct the behavior of those who used them and learn more about the towns and cities from which the coins came. How can we help prevent the illegal excavation of coins and stop the loss of this important contextual information?

In 1996, Britain’s parliament passed the Treasure Act, which, in principle, records all objects of gold, silver, and, in certain cases, bronze, including coins, while allowing the sale of these items if no institution wishes to purchase them. Recently, this legislation has been coupled with a scheme that encourages finders to report any object they discover in the ground so that it can be added to a central, online database (www.finds.org.uk). Available to all, this has become a wonderful resource for collectors, finders, and scholars alike. This system lets collectors collect and dealers deal while, at the same time, it preserves all the information about the coins that archaeologists and numismatists require. Perhaps other countries could begin working toward some model of recording their coin finds. Without such initiatives, looting will continue and U.S. import restrictions will drive this market underground.

I very much hope that the ANS will serve as a place where this issue can be discussed and debated. I certainly support collecting as a hobby, but I am also convinced that there is common ground between archaeologists who care about their sites and collectors who care about their coins. I urge both sides to drop their bellicose language and pause to listen to each other. I certainly hope that ANS members will always treat one another with respect and understanding, which can then serve as the basis for future agreement and practical results.

Yours truly,
Ute Wartenberg Kagan