Thursday, June 20, 2024 8:58 pm EST

Archive for the 'Cultural Property Issues' Category

Requiring Provenance- An Injustice to Ancient Coin Collectors

By: Alfredo De La Fé

At the 2015 Cultural Property Advisory Committee (CPAC) hearing to discuss a potential renewal of the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Italy, Prof. Patty Gerstenblith, Chair of CPAC, cited text from a Numismatica Ars Classica catalog stating that the firm will provide documentation for coins subject to US import restrictions.  She asked if NAC can provide such documentation why can’t other firms?  Of Course, NAC cannot provide provenance for all the coins in its sales and the documentation cited would undoubtedly be some form of certification by personal knowledge or belief.

In my experience, less than one coin in a thousand has retained its provenance/pedigree information over the past five centuries of active coin collecting. Simply put, this information rarely exists.  In the antiquities trade, these items are considered “orphaned artifacts”. Many common or low value coins were sold without provenance information and typically were not photographed for the sale catalogs—If there even was a catalog or public record. The vast majority of coins sold in private transactions were not photographed. Photography did not even exist until the mid 19th century and did not become common in the numismatic trade until the later 20th century.  Thanks in large part to the advent of the internet and the use of online stores and internet based auctions, that situation is changing.


When attempting to research a “lost pedigree”- one quickly discovers that many coins have been cleaned or conserved throughout the years, making it more difficult to easily identify a coin from an earlier photograph or plaster cast.  Occasionally a dealer will get “lucky” and stumble upon a coin’s pedigree when researching a specific coin—especially if it is rare or unusual. But more often than not, once a coin has lost its provenance the information is lost forever. There have been several notable examples over the past thirty years where dealers have gotten “lucky”.

AE Medallion of Volusian with recently rediscovered pedigree dating back to 1775!
AE Medallion of Volusian with recently rediscovered pedigree dating back to 1775!

In the Agora Auctions Electronic Sale #31 of Ancient and Medieval coins closing on April 28th 2015, lot number 31-187 (http://agoraauctions.com/listing/viewdetail/14457) is an apparently unique Roman medallion of the emperor Volusian, that has a very old pedigree! What is of particular interest is that this coin had been “missing” since ca. 1830 and had lost all of its provenance information.

The coin, formerly residing in the Wiczay collection, was first published by Eckhel in 1775, and subsequently cited in Cohen. Purchased after Wiczay’s death ca. 1830 by the Parisian coin dealer Rollin, it had been missing until its recent chance discovery at a coin show in the United States.

In an online discussion concerning this coin, Curtis Clay wrote: “Judging from Eckhel’s drawing, the Wiczay specimen, like [Agora’s], had a little extra metal outside the border of dots at the left on the obverse, and had two small indentations on its upper edge on the reverse, at a little before 12 o’clock and a little after 1 o’clock respectively.

I think these correspondences can hardly be coincidental, so do not doubt that [Agora’s] coin and Wiczay’s represent one and the same original! …”  If not for the eagle eye of a very highly acclaimed numismatist, this coin probably would never have been identified as the coin cited in Cohen!

In 2014, a Celtic silver tetradrachm was submitted for identification and grading to Numismatic Guarantee Corporation (NGC). The coin had ‘cabinet toning’ suggesting that it had been a part of an old collection. While researching this coin in the standard reference for the series it was discovered that an image of this very coin was in the publication!  [The Coinage of Damastion and the Lesser Coinages of the Illyro-Paeonian Region by J. M. F. May, published in 1939 at the Oxford University Press. Plate 8, coin 100a.] (You can read more about this interesting discovery here:   http://www.ngccoin.com/news/viewarticle.aspx?IDArticle=3752)

In 2012, authorities of the British Museum joined other major museums in establishing a policy of not exhibiting artifacts and ancient coins that did not have a provenance/pedigree dating to 1970 or earlier.   Consequently, the museum informed a collector who had loaned a spectacular sestertius of Hadrian that the coin could no longer be displayed because its recorded provenance only want back as far as 1980.  A year later negotiations began to display this coin at another prestigious museum. Once again, the provenance issue came up. However this time, while looking through an earlier auction catalog in the Nomos library at Zurich, It was discovered that the coin had a lost provenance dating back at least to the mid-19th century! Remarkably, a photograph of the coin in the sale catalogue of 1906 showed that the coin was at that time uncleaned. Clearly, it had since been professionally conserved. (You can read more here: http://www.coinweek.com/featured-news/ancient-coins-107-years-hidden-mystery-hadrian-exercitus-britannicus-revealed/)

(See also: The Celator,  “Pedigrees and Price” by Dr. Alan Walker”, where many additional examples are cited.)

A small but influential group of archaeologists have publicly taken the stand that any trade in cultural property is unethical.   Their ideological view has found support within several agencies of government, where the repression of international trade in coins and artifacts is becoming a major initiative.   Customs, following the lead of the U.S. State Department, has shifted the burden of proof from the government to the importer in cases of MOU designated list detentions and seizures. They have essentially taken the position that all coins are illicit unless proven otherwise. Importers are subject to being treated as looters or those that support and encourage looting by the simple act of importing a coin that was legally purchased in international trade.

In an ideal world it would be fantastic to have provenance information for every object from antiquity. Unfortunately, ancient and medieval coins have not carried this information as they have changed ownership. Even important coins have often lost their provenance. A very small percentage of the millions of coins sold during the past five centuries have this information and, when they do have it, it is a rare occurrence. It is an injustice that provenance has become a requirement for importation of many coin types into the United States when no other country on earth imposes similar broad import restrictions.   In any case, provenance may be more valuable in the years to come than it has been in the past.

Any legal requirement of provenance should be weighed against the fact that while there have been hundreds of thousands of collectors a very small percentage are currently active. Getting word out concerning such a requirement is an impossible task. What happens when ten years from now a collector dies and his grand children find his old coin collection in the attic with no provenance? How will these coins be “grandfathered” in to the new requirement? Even if the “1970 standard” is relaxed and collectors are given a very long time to somehow register their collections via a third party service or photography, this would ultimately turn the greater majority of ancient coins which are already in private hands “illicit”.

Help Protect your Ability to Purchase Roman Imperial Coins from Abroad

Fellow Collector:

Please help protect your continued ability to purchase Roman Imperial Coins from abroad. The State Department and US Customs have already drastically limited our ability to bring Greek, Punic, Etruscan and early Republican coins struck in Italy into our country legally. Now, unless collectors engage, there is a real danger the State Department and US Customs will use an upcoming renewal of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Italy to extend current restrictions to Roman Imperial Coins. That would make them quite difficult to import legally as well. Please tell the State Department’s Cultural Property Advisory Committee what you think about the issue. To comment, please go to the Federal eRulemaking Portal (http://www.regulations.gov), enter the Docket No. DOS-2015-0010-0001 (or try this direct link: http://www.regulations.gov/#!documentDetail;D=DOS-2015-0010-0001) and follow the prompts to submit a comment. Please note comments may be posted only UNTIL MARCH 20, 2015 at 11:59 PM.

What should you say? Indicate how restrictions will negatively impact your business and/or the cultural understanding and people to people contacts collecting provides. Add that it’s typically impossible to assume a particular coin (especially Roman ones) was “first discovered within” and “subject to the export control” of Italy. You might also add that Italian historical coins are very common and widely and legally available for sale elsewhere, and point out the absurdity of restricting coins freely available for sale in Italy itself. Your own words are best, but feel free to use the below as a model.

For more, see http://culturalpropertyobserver.blogspot.com/2015/02/enough-already-oppose-yet-another.html

Dear CPAC:

Enough is enough. This MOU should be allowed to lapse. Its negative impacts on collecting and the appreciation of Italian culture and people to people contacts collecting brings now far outweigh any benefits. At a minimum, please free all ancient coins from restriction. Such coins are openly and legally available for sale worldwide, including within Italy itself. It makes absolutely no sense to continue to restrict American access to what Italians themselves have enjoyed since the Renaissance. Finally, please do not recommend new restrictions on Roman Imperial Coins. As the products of a great empire, these coins circulated throughout Europe, the Middle East and beyond. They “belong” not to Italy, but to us all.