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"Provenance and Legal Issues," by N. Elkins (2022), pp. 55-64 in the new INC Survey of Numismatic Research, 2014-2020

Curtis JJ

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As I learned just about an hour ago from @Nick's Tweet, the new INC 2022 Survey of Numismatic Research 2014-2020 (Vol I & II) is now available online. This link goes directly to the PDF file (13.7MB, 1,242 pages, the first Volume, 553 pages, is particularly relevant to ancient coins).

I'll mention just one article -- the first one I read. For the first time, the INC's Survey included a section on "Provenance and Legal Issues," which, of course, affects all collectors, and happens to be one of my main interests. I've attached the excerpt of just this chapter (10 pages including references) for anyone who doesn't want to download all 1,242! (Hopefully it works, I haven't tried attaching PDFs before.)

If you've never looked at an INC Survey of Numismatic Research, you should do so -- the old ones too (note that the INC Surveys of Numismatic Research are not the same as the INC conference proceedings, separate documents). The numerous chapters are brief reviews, and can be of variable quality (and languages) depending who writes them, but are a great way to get a quick grip on important trends in research and the discipline.

What do you think? If you read Elkins differently, let me know!


Nathan T. Elkins. 2022. “Provenance and Legal Issues,”  pp.55-64 in Alram et al. (eds.), Survey of Numismatic Research, 2014-2020. Winterthur: International Numismatic Council.

Elkins is the newly appointed Deputy Director of the ANS. When announced, some collectors were concerned, as he'd done some anti-collecting blogging when he was (as I saw it) a junior academic. Personally, looking at his public activities, I wasn't too concerned about him being anti-collecting, especially given ANS' many long-term ties to private collectors and firms. His language in this essay sometimes equates metal detecting with looting and collecting/selling with trafficking; no one who reads this academic literature will be surprised, though for collectors the tone can feel unpleasant.

I didn't find anything in his literature review that I wasn't already familiar with, but that's important to know too. I did think there were some obvious topics he overlooked. (I save those for the end.)

A few summary comments.

His overview of US import restrictions is useful and parsimonious. An excerpt:

  • Page 57: “A list of active import restrictions, with links to the designated lists of each country can be found on the website of the Cultural Property Advisory Committee of the U.S. Department of State: https://eca.state.gov/cultural-heritage-center/cultural-property-advisory-committee/current-import-restrictions. The United States currently limits the importation of ancient coins from Algeria (implemented 2019), Bulgaria (implemented 2014, renewed 2019), China (implemented 2009, renewed 2014 and 2019), Cyprus (implemented 2002, coins first protected in 2006, renewed in 2012 and 2017), Egypt (implemented 2016), Greece (implemented 2011, renewed 2016), Jordan (implemented 2020), Libya (implemented 2018), Morocco (implemented 2021), and Turkey (implemented 2021). Ancient coins from Iraq are subject to import restrictions via the Emergency Protection for Iraqi Cultural Antiquities Act (2004), as are coins from Syria through the Protect and Preserve International Cultural Property Act (2016), and emergency import restrictions were imposed in 2020 on coins and antiquities originating from Yemen.”

He also discusses terrorism and conflict zones, and includes various empirical contributions. It's rare for anyone on collecting forums to entertain the likelihood or accept evidence that such groups exploit coins/antiquities for revenue. Personally, I think it's implausible that ancient coins/antiquities from conflict zones aren't funding the criminal or terrorist actors there, just as any other area of commerce does. (Ancient coins are treated almost like any other buried resource -- such as oil -- and often mined and sold by whoever is on the land.) In Syria and Iraq, I think the evidence was overwhelming (and comes in numerous forms, from satellite photos to interviews with locals to analyses of objects on the market, and others). But I understand that my interpretation may be in the minority.


One area I felt was lacking was published research on provenance in the private market and museum collections. The timeframe was narrow, so some references like John Spring's (2009) bibliography of Ancient Coin Auction Catalogs, 1880-1980 was out of range. But David Fanning's (2020) Ancient Coins in Early American Auctions, 1869-1939 was not.

Those familiar with the journal KOINON will be aware of articles on ancient coin provenances in several of the issues (KOINON I & II were within the timeframe and included valuable articles on provenance research by John Voukelatos). Hadrian Rambach has written a number of valuable essays on coin collectors, dealers, and provenances in the 19th and 20th centuries, some within the period of the review, but none mentioned [https://independent.academia.edu/HadrienRambach]. There are others.

Though he mentioned the Ex-Numis website, he did not mention the massive digitization of catalogs for provenance (and other) research by University of Heidelberg, the ANS (at Archive), and Washington University's Newman Numismatic Portal. 

Finally, although the criminological literature is mentioned, as are the American MOU and British PAS / Treasure Act systems, I don't think he gave enough attention to academic scholarship on policy alternatives, enforcement strategies, and civil and criminal approaches (nor public attitudes or implementation/effectiveness of existing policies). Oftentimes these aren't exactly empirical research, but essays in law reviews, making suggestions about policy improvements and novel legal theories, so I can understand why he wouldn't spend much time on them. But I felt the absence was notable: What do the policy and legal experts say the various alternatives are and what their likely consequences might be?

Elkins (2022) Provenance and Legal Issues, INC 2022, Survey.pdf

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With the almost complete lack of fresh NewStyles on the market  for YEARS [removed]. How else is the field to progress?  The Museo Archaeolgica Chieti, Italy has had their portion of the Poggio Picenze hoard for 70 years and resist all attempts at the publication of the NewStyle holdings.. Criminal or what! Let the legal eagles stick that in their respective pipes and smoke it. Yep it's pointless but gives people a job!!! Plenty of Jobs, however, in Chieti italy!

Edited by Restitutor
Understand the removed portion was likely said in jest, but don't want to encourage any illegal activity.
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There is some excellent writing in here - many thanks for posting it.

I’m way  less enthusiastic about the Elkins stuff - that sort of essay always makes me feel like a criminal’s consort.

This may be naive but if he works for the ANS and the ANS is member funded why is the tone so negative to the collecting world? I completely understand the myriad (good Greek word!) concerns but there is clearly much good that can come from private collections and the holier than thou attitude the ANS seems to adopt to anything at all without the provenance they dictate sticks in my throat.

Is the ANS generally so aloof, so seeking to remove itself from its grubby little members or am I misreading/overly sensitive? Or do we just see the worst of it when reading his piece?










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20 hours ago, Deinomenid said:

...attitude the ANS seems to adopt...

I understand that reaction entirely, and many do feel similarly. I have no disagreement with any of it. 

But I always think about it from the perspective of the ANS's "institutional ecology": Where do they have to live? 

ANS is primarily a scholarly organization, so their survival depends on existing in the university, academic association, and museum ecosystem, as well as securing the cooperation of antiquities authorities in "source countries," some with highly nationalist policies. (Probably much more consequential for their future than most private collectors are, though I haven't checked what they say about funding sources in their annual reports.)

Having read the literatures Elkins summarized, and the related association and government policies, I think the ANS positions are actually pretty moderate compared to their peer institutions in the archaeological world. (In some corners collectors are truly despised.)

Comparing the ANS journal publication guidelines, for instance, to those of the AIA / Archaeological Institute of America's (Elkins gives good overviews of both), the ANS guidelines are vastly more permissive. (They do give preference to provenanced materials, museum collections, and controlled excavations, but allow publication of items that have been published in auction catalogs and from private collections that aren't anonymous. That's borderline heretical to the AIA.)

Of course, not all or even most individuals in academic organizations are hostile to collecting, and many scholars are collectors themselves. (In my "provenance glossary" of maybe a couple hundred collectors, professors are among the most frequent professions, including many from Classics, archaeology, and related disciplines. If you ever wondered why some people might want their collection to be anonymous when sold, this is one more reason.) But the official stances of archaeological organizations -- and especially national antiquities authorities -- are almost always openly hostile to collecting, with grudging toleration if it's completely and demonstrably (i.e., with documents) consistent with the 1970 UNESCO conference on cultural heritage.

Some in that world actually seem to consider ANS the enemy -- or at least sympathetic to the enemy -- for its ties to collectors, just as most other museums have been at risk in recent decades. Even if they wished to, I suspect ANS would have difficulty surviving if they moved much further from the stricter positions of the antiquities authorities and archaeology associations.

Edited by Curtis JJ
+"securing" ; "associations" -> "authorities" ; pl. -> singular ; "many" -> "some"
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I wondered more whether this chap represented one extreme of the ANS - sort of  like if you read the chief compliance officer of a bank's report  it would be cautious, scared,  prohibitive in nature, whereas everyone else there would be more relaxed.

The hostility is a shame. I was at Paestum (Posidonia) in Italy recently - magnificent  Greek temples, but pretty much surrounded by  farmland. Directly across from one of the temples, outside one of the few  houses a man was selling  the usual touristy stuff and I said I was surprised how little there was there-  the complex seemed really quite  under-excavated, if that's a term. He said  he  owned the fields  behind and there was no point letting anyone dig/research there as "they" would  just take  his  property if they find anything there.

You can see from this map,  it is endless fields. There must be all sorts of  interest there, and such a shame the animosity  even with the landowner means research suffers. Looks like distrust has spread all over.



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