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Alan Walker of Nomos recently wrote about their upcoming auction and added some thoughts about "cultural heritage."  I asked for and got his permission to reproduce them here. All the rest of this post after the horizontal line is his words.

You have surely noticed the ever-increasing criticism that both private and institutional collectors, especially those living or based in Europe or the United States, are faced with in connection with what is generally termed "cultural heritage". To be very simplistic, indignant scholars and others in developed and developing countries constantly claim that wicked, uncaring, greedy, racist, sexist, etc., Westerners have stolen vitally important items of their heritage (i.e, everything what-so-ever that was made in those countries or by those peoples) and it all should be given back. It is also important to remember that, according to certain western scholarly groups, non-western peoples and states were all absolute paragons of virtue, never indulging in pillage, slavery, oppression or any of those many bad things that only westerners do. It is upsetting, isn't it?

Of course, it is true that many things were pillaged and stolen from conquered or colonized peoples, but to be honest, that was something everyone did in what might be termed the old days. Assyrians, Babylonians, Brits, Chinese, Elamites, French, Greeks, Romans (the Riace Bronzes, the most famous surviving Greek statues of the 5th century BC and now the proud heritage of Italy, were certainly looted by the Romans from Greece in the 1st century BC) - everyone took things as trophies and as booty. And at all times there were people who were furious about such actions and attempted to redress those wrongs: when Cyrus of Persia conquered Babylon he returned the seized statues of city gods to their home cities and freed the captive Jews to return to Judaea; Cicero prosecuted Gaius Verres, the Roman governor of Sicily who pillaged temples, cities and private individuals (and was also reputed to have stolen coins), in order to have those looted pieces of cultural heritage returned to their rightful owners. Obviously, we are against looting today; but things are never really as simple as black and white (are we still allowed to use that expression today?). For example, the Benin Bronzes were taken when the British punitive expedition captured Benin City in 1897: supposedly they were used to defray costs, and were sold to institutions and individuals all over the world. Now, of course, many clamor for all of them to go back to their rightful owner, Nigeria or, more narrowly, the Oba of Benin. Seems straightforward enough but the catch comes in when it is realized that these bronzes were made from bronze acquired from the profits of the slave trade, which had made the Obas of Benin immensely wealthy...

But what does all this have to do with ancient coins? Well, even though coins were struck in immense numbers in ancient times, and the larger denominations of gold and silver coins did not only circulate within the immediate area of the state or city that struck them, heritage advocates claim that all ancient coins are vital and precious treasures of the past, which, when found by trained archaeologists and analyzed by serious specialists, can tell us incredibly important things about the past, which we would not otherwise know. For example, they usually tell us that only archaeological evidence can enable ancient coins to be dated; that only when the exact find spot of a coin is known can the types on the coin be fully understood; and that only modern scientific archaeology can answer these questions. Needless to say, the government officials and bureaucrats of the countries involved echo these views - often after being prompted to do so by activist elements within the US State Department (as with the case of Yemen's heritage, which is said to be in more danger from foreign collectors than it is from the various factions in Yemen itself who are happily blowing it up).

Of course, some of this is true, but most of it is nonsense. Numismatics has been a serious scholarly discipline for some 400 years, with truly accurate research being done and published for well over the last 150. The chronologies of some issues have been known since the 18th century, and no modern archaeological excavation, no matter how carefully carried out, is going to change that. Coins found in the foundation trenches of a building, especially one the date of which is independently known, can do two things: if they include some coins in fresh condition (apart from corrosion damage, which can be severe), the date of the building can provide them with an accurate terminus ante quem  for their own issue (inversely, the fresh coins supply a very accurate terminus post quem for the building itself). A worn or very worn coin found in an archaeological context tells us very little except that it was used at the time it was lost: a dupondius of Nero in Fine (worn) condition could have been dropped in the time of Domitian or Hadrian or Commodus; if it was only Very Good (very worn) it might have been lost in the time of Gallienus, or even - like the countermarked Ostrogothic issues, in the late 5th century! In other words, very fresh, accurately datable coins can date their contexts, but the datable archaeological contexts of worn coins only tell us when, and often where,  those coins were used.

Thus, obviously, the archaeological context in which a coin is found can be important for either the coin or the context, or both; that is, presumably, one of the reasons why there is such a clamor about the import/export/transport/ownership of ancient coins. The 'heritage folk' truly believe that drastic controls are vital for archaeology; unfortunately, what they do not realize, or do not wish to realize, is that once a coin (or any object for that matter) is removed from the ground, without any record, its archaeological context  is lost, often irretrievably! Stopping an Athenian coin from entering Germany and returning it to Greece does nothing at all for Greek archaeology - after all, it has no provenience; it only bolsters the holdings of a Greek museum. So the simple fact is that since the vast, vast, vast majority of coins on the market have no truly secure provenience (though they may have quite a secure provenance), they do virtually nothing for archaeology. What would be important would be making sure that anything found was immediately reported and recorded (the way things are ideally done in England). But this would require the relevant governments to treat honest finders fairly (and drastically punish dishonest ones), including providing proper rewards for the objects found. Needless to say, most of the governments in the so-called "source countries" refuse to do this, preferring to blame foreign actors for their own faults.

Edited by Valentinian
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Thanks for posting this essay by Dr. Alan Walker ☺️. He expresses well the dichotomy of perspective that so many of us collectors & numismatists have delt with for a long time. The repatriation of ancient coins & artifacts has gone on to an absurd level, damaged our hobby, & needs to be changed. 

Edited by Al Kowsky
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Most of the complaints seem to come from other Western governments - Greece, Italy etc. Ironically, they blame what you might call more recent colonial powers, despite the fact that their wealth in antiquity came from colonising everyone else.

As a collector of British coins, I'm lucky enough to duck under most of this. Our government wants finds declared so makes it profitable to do so (even if it can be slower than finders might like). They also prosecute looters, and stories of people trying to subvert the system seem to involve them trying to sell coins for less than they'd get through the legitimate channels, and going to prison instead.

A further benefit of this (as with the same system in the Netherlands) is that your coins are more likely to come with provenance and findspots. It adds so much to the hobby and our history if the proper archaeologists have a chance to look at the coins first - and then allow them to be sold.

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