Saturday, December 01, 2012

Coin Collectors and the Intellectual Landscape

The ever-thought-provoking Polish archaeologist, Paul Barford, used a phrase in one of his recent blogs that did cause for me a moment of reflection.  "Here I am talking about the 'broader intellectual landscape' within which they ['coineys'] function...."  It struck me as odd that Mr. Barford, often prone to wanton derision, would refer to coin collectors functioning as "intellectuals".  Maybe he's had an epiphany.   I must admit that I have never really thought a great deal about the intellectual landscape of ancient coin collecting, much less about its breadth in those terms.  I don't believe that collectors are prone to touting the intellectual breadth of their interests.  Unlike some pedantics, that is probably a bit out of character for the typical collector.  Ancient Coin Collectors, as a group, are far more egalitarian than that.

But, certainly Mr. Barford is right.  Ancient coin collectors do function within a very broad range of disciplines that are often quite intellectual.  From Art History to Metallurgy to Political Science and myriad other paths of exploration, ancient coins provide a wealth of intellectual opportunities.  Perhaps that is what draws adherents of such diversity to the avocation.  Ancient coins can appeal to the psyche on so many different levels that a cross-section of collectors will include scientists, educators, students, clergy, politicians, people of the trades, probably even an Indian Chief or two.  There are certainly enough archaeologists collecting ancient coins to form their own coin club and "provenance" is not to them the Holy Grail.  Virtually all collectors today value the knowledge of a coin's past travels and often pay a premium to have it.  However, they realistically understand that collecting only coins with an extended provenance is akin to drinking only water that fell from the sky over one's head.  What would one do with the water from a well that may have crossed national borders in a river far beneath the surface of the earth?  It is impossible to say where that water was in 1970 or in 1790.  Lacking that knowledge, shall one not drink?  One might just as well suggest that governments control the flow of subterranean water across national borders as to control the transfer of cultural property in a world where culture is, and has long been, shared widely—and intentionally so.  The logic of such regulation is astoundingly not intellectual.  If Canada or Mexico passed a law claiming rain water as their patrimony (Utah has essentially done that already in the U.S.) would the U.S. Department of Justice then prosecute under the National Stolen Property Act those who capture water that flowed out of those countries?  The analogy is not so bizarre as one might think. 

  In contrast to institutional intellectuals, who are by their very nature sequestered in pockets of erudition, coin collectors are normally independent and relatively isolated.  That in itself promotes a certain vulnerability.  They tend to interface intellectually with academia and other institutions on a personal basis rather than as a unified discipline.  The one thing that tends to bring them together is the international trade in ancient coins and its consequent venues.  Coin shows and numismatic conventions are far more than narrowly focused bourses, they are social events that bring people of like interests together for mutual expression, learning and recreation.  The coin show is also a spawning ground for intellectualism as many research projects are born amidst the wide ranging exchange of shared interests.  The intellectual landscape for the typical coin collector is far less regimented than that of institutions.  This can be a disadvantage in some respects, but it has the very real advantage of freedom to explore and journey through a landscape that professional scholars and academic disciplines often find impenetrable.  This is particularly true in the field of numismatic publishing, where academic studies are exceedingly difficult and expensive to launch within the institutional press system.  Perhaps this is what Mr. Barford was alluding to by the phrase "broader intellectual landscape".  Ironically, Mr. Barford has on many occasions attacked the institutional intellect, particularly in his native Britain.  Perhaps there is some correlation between that and his expatriot status, one can only guess.  It was not until recently that I really understood how similar those attacks are to those launched against people he likes to call "coineys".  I rather like the term, and wonder why I didn't think to name the ACCG the Ancient Coiney Collectors Guild.  Sigh, Mr. Barford is right I'm just "...an old man who apparently believes fervently in coin elves...".  What terrific insight.

1 comment:

Cultural Property Observer said...

What you say is true. Many coineys are quite accomplished in their own fields (science, finance, llaw, etc.)so it's a bit strange that Barford and some of his ilk are so dismissive of collectors' efforts to publish on coins. It's also troubling that Barford bills himself as the archaeological community's spokeperson on portable antiquities and real academics who should know better like David Gill promote Barford and his views, presumably because they derive some sort of perverse pleasure from Barford's insults to those with whom he (and they) disagree. It really does not speak well for the archaeological community as a whole. Keep up your good work. Barford is really taking your bait, and in so doing, shows his ignorance.