I am worried about the trade of illicit antiquities. How can I create an “ethical” collection?

Coin collecting has a long and proud history stretching back centuries - a hobby with a strong academic tradition enjoyed by everyone from kings and presidents, to professors, tycoons, celebrities and the common man on the street. The vast majority of collectors are genuine lovers of history who strive to research, document and preserve their artefacts for future generations. Collectors do a huge amount of good that is often ignored while the hobby increasingly needs defending from uninformed, agenda-driven attacks by media, academia and government; many of these detractors knowingly conflate the collecting of ancient coins, duplicated in their millions, with unique works of art like statues or frescoes. In the face of numerous arguments that usually display little understanding of how the coin market operates, collectors take a pragmatic view – responding to situations as they are and prioritising above all the preservation of ancient coins that have always and will always be discovered, whether we like it or not.

Contrary to the popular image of ruthless treasure hunters desecrating ancient graves to get a few coins, most ancient coins are actually discovered in large, sometimes massive hoards. For centuries coins have been accidentally unearthed by builders, workmen and farmers. The use of modern metal detectors has of course led to a dramatic increase in the number of ancient coins discovered but also in turn the number of ancient sites identified. The success of the 1996 Treasure Act of England and Wales along with the Portable Antiquities Scheme which permits the use of metal detectors and incentivises the declaration of any finds, has proven it possible for all parties to work together for mutual benefit and in defence of heritage. When a coin is discovered by a legal detectorist at an officially organised rally under the supervision of a Finds Liaison Officer, some will still decry a loss of its archaeological context – though they are conspicuously quiet about the routine deep ploughing that thoroughly obliterates archaeological remains and often brings a coin right to the surface in the first place. Indeed, the discovery of coins at a site, usually dispersed by centuries of agriculture, is what often leads to further archaeological investigation and preservation.

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Coin collectors are an easy target for commentators looking for simplistic answers to complex international problems surrounding the destruction of cultural heritage. These same people usually have little to say about corrupt governance and mishandling of historic sites, government-sanctioned looting or the crushing poverty that has always led locals to dig at ancient ruins. While illegal excavation and trade in antiquities is certainly something that needs to be fought, many have drastically overestimated the problem to further their agendas: the WCO’s Illicit Trade Report shows heritage crime constantly declining and dwarfed by every other form of trafficking, Cultural Property making up just 0.08% of cases and seizures involving reported illicit trade globally. Compare this to drugs for instance, which make up almost 40%. Furthermore, a majority of ‘antiquities’ seized are subsequently revealed to be fakes anyway; this massive, culturally-deleterious counterfeiting industry of "official fakes", treated as genuine antiquities by governmental authorities, much less often discussed.

In the face of these issues, coin collectors can continue to do what is in their power to pursue their hobby responsibly. Modern numismatists work hard to correct the failings of historic collectors who did little to document the provenance of their coins. Many ancient coins have circulated for centuries amongst modern numismatists, so while it is impossible to provide provenance for every coin that started its life in ancient Rome, collectors use a wide range of modern resources to rediscover the heritage of their coins. By scouring antique catalogues, trawling through internet databases and even using cutting-edge AI recognition tools, a numismatist can rediscover lost heritage and even trace their coin back to the collection of a European monarch or American president. 

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It has been said that collectors are guardians of the past and curators of the future, appreciating the intrinsic historical value of all artefacts; outside of the fickle, ever-changing agendas of academia or poorly funded, mismanaged government institutions. Collectors should continue to research, document and preserve their coins for future generations, most happily acknowledging themselves as temporary custodians of their artefacts. They can also work to bring the knowledge of coins to a wider and younger audience through educational initiatives, social media, websites and blogs.  As with many hobbies like astronomy, most publishing and new discoveries in numismatics come from amateur enthusiasts in the coin market rather than from academia, as have the most comprehensive searchable online coin databases. We fast approach a cashless world, ending a close human relationship with coinage that has lasted almost three millennia, therefore collectors will need to work harder than ever to bring the joy of coins to new generations and help ensure the long-term future of their hobby.