Sunday, April 18, 2010

Is it really just "Old Money"?

Much has been written, both academically and on blogs, regarding the logistics, ethics, complexities, and archaeological significance of the trade in ancient coins world wide, but particularly in the Northern Hemisphere. For example, the Archaeology and Numismatics blog frequently provides new information concerning the deleterious effect that the wholesale removal and trade in ancient coins can have to the larger archaeological record of those locations and time periods in which coins routinely surface during excavation; primarily within Mediterranean countries. In short, it is becoming increasingly well documented that coins, even commonly minted coins, out of context, are as "adrift" as any other category of artifact. Furthermore, the ongoing blogging by another colleague of mine, Mr. Paul Barford (Portable Antiquity Collecting and Heritage Issues), has been consistently monitoring and responding to the sometimes voracious and vociferous extents that the majority of the pro-collecting lobbies and "activists" in the Northern Hemisphere, primarily England and the USA, can go to in order to keep the trade in illicit recently-surfaced 'dugups' going, while branding all opposition as baseless propaganda by "cultural heritage nationalist" radicals. As usual, the Southern Hemisphere is still widely overlooked in this discussion. This blog post will report my observations and thoughts about one such dealer; namely "Walter Holt's Old Money" ("In proud association with M.R. Roberts' Wynyard Coin Centre").

Based out of Sydney, the Wynyard Centre maintains its own newsgroup (with all subscribing members receiving a free copy of NUM$NEWS ("Numis News"), the official newsletter of Walter Holt's Old Money), although no separate webpage or online order forms could be located for this gallery specifically. Mr. Holt began collecting at 14, he has spent the intervening years amassing a large collection while traveling, meeting people, and seeing "scores of wonderful places," all of which have helped him "gather substantial knowledge about ancient coins and the places from which they come." Nothing mentioned about how they arrive on the market, or when, or from whom...? Initial efforts to emphasize the antiquity and authenticity of the coins for sale was first encountered on the "Old Money" homepage itself, on which Mr. Holt clearly advises potential customers that "if you have a 1915 Sovereign or a 1952 Australian Penny then DO NOT call me - it's not ancient, I can't help you. Ok! Basically, if it isn't well over a thousand years old, I may not be able to help you unless it is a British hammered coin. Thanks!" The seeming exasperation noted in the above quote suggests to me that Mr. Holt has encountered this problem before, and only the rare will suffice for sale.

"Old Money" is a direct subsidiary, for sales purposes, of the world-wide online clearing house "," and also maintains links to "A.S.A.N." (Australian Society of Ancient Numismatics), provides many related books or identification guides for perusal or purchase, as well as detailed guidelines for customers to learn how to correctly interpret coin quality, description, and mint of origin (in antiquity) information when browsing. Consistently absent from all catalog entries and supporting information is clear indication of provenance for any artifacts offered for sale. Most lack any indication of a collection, museum, or archaeological site of origin, or the year or decade of acquisition by Old Money. In short, it seems that this Southern Hemisphere dealer is borrowing liberally from the play book of Northern Hemisphere colleagues. A "free-market" antiquities trade, no questions asked.

Ancient coins are not the only antiquities traded in by Old Money. A link is also provided to a separate webpage offering a small selection of Greek, Roman, and Egyptian artifacts. As readers and potential customers can see, much information on artifact condition, hieroglyphic text translation, and academic background is provided up front, along with age and price. Perhaps information about date and place of 'surfacing,' and pre-1970 collection/auction history is provided with purchase...perhaps not. I strongly suspect that, like the coins, no one knows for sure. Perhaps Old Money feels that they make up for this dubiousness by suggesting the services of an on-call hieroglyphics specialist?! Authenticity above legality?

This is certainly not the only such coin dealer in the Southern Hemisphere, especially located as it is within a major 'importing' nation like Australia. The fact that Old Money is well connected to, and that they advertise international shipping, indicates that although their operations are small, they are not overly isolated from new "merchandise." This does not appear to be merely the gradual sale of a single, large deaccessioned private collection. Indeed, Mr. Holt has boasted about his past and current travels. Although the mere act of purchasing is legal, the sale of small, "common" objects such as coins is still antiquities trading. As this article documenting the various uses for coins in Medieval Italy, and this image showing a Late Romano-British grave good assemblage for an adult male indicate, coins have diverse contexts in their own right! It is now up to all concerned citizens, ethical archaeological, historical and numismatic professionals, and investigative authorities to keep monitoring operations such as these, and to not purchase from such organizations without upfront and verifiable proof that, at the very least, the coin in question did not just recently 'surface Down Under.'

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