Byzantine coins and the price of gold

In his report Antiquities Trafficking in Syria Olivier Moos made the interesting and important observation that dealers on the ground inside Syria might buy looted coins and other precious metal antiquities according to their bullion value and not their projected sales value on the international market (Moos 2020: 11, 29). Until now, quoted on-the-ground prices for looted antiquities inside Syria have usually been considered suspect because they appear unrealistically high. But if prices for coins are indeed linked to their bullion value, then bullion value provides an objective measure of price inside Syria that can be used in conjunction with published prices on the retail end-market to investigate the pricing structure of the coin trade.

Reverse of solidus attributed to the Byzantine emperor Heraclius recently sold on Catawiki

A good coin to start with is the Roman-Byzantine gold solidus. The solidus was introduced by the Roman emperor Constantine I (306-337 AD) and for centuries afterwards it was produced with high purity gold (98 per cent) and a consistent weight of 4.5 grams. Debasement started in the eighth century and became marked from the tenth century onwards (Grierson 1999; Morrison 2002). Hundreds of solidi (at least) are known to have been found in Syria through legitimate excavations and hundreds if not thousands more must have been found through looting. Solidi would lose weight through wear during circulation, but for some basic exploratory calculations it can be assumed that in bullion terms today a solidus minted before 700 AD is a lump of pure gold and would be priced according to weight by dealers inside Syria. From 2012–2013, gold was trading on the international market for about 50–55 USD per gram, dropping during 2014–2019 to about 40 USD per gram. Thus in 2012–2013, a newly-looted solidus weighing 4.5 grams could have been sold for 236 USD, dropping to 180 USD from 2014–2019.

Outside Syria, over the period 2011–2020 three US/UK numismatic companies between them sold 3,883 fourth-to-seventh-century solidi for an average (mean) price of 1,082 per cent of their bullion value (1). This average figure was inflated by the sale of some exceptional high-priced coins. The highest price achieved was 62,625 per cent of bullion value (140,000 USD) for a coin minted in Ravenna of a type not likely to be found in Syria. The highest price paid for a coin minted in Constantinople of a type that could be found in Syria was 43,563 per cent of bullion value (65,000 USD). The median price of the sold solidi was lower at 323 per cent of bullion value. In other words, a looted coin sold for 200 USD inside Syria in 2018 would most likely have been sold in the UK or USA for about 646 USD, but on average, because of the high price of rare coins, for every coin sold for 200 USD inside Syria the UK or US company would have made 2,164 USD. Thus the pricing structure of the coin trade is dependent upon end-market companies with the knowledge necessary to recognise high value coins and access to similarly knowledgeable customers with the means to pay for them. The price of gold might form a floor beneath which coin prices cannot drop, but rarity is a more important determinant of end-market price. Presumably dealers inside Syria or its immediately neighbouring countries are able to sell coins for more than bullion value or else it would be easier to sell them for melting and recycling. Judging by the numbers of coins in circulation, that doesn’t happen. Dealers inside Syria may well be able to recognise rare and potentially expensive coins themselves, but without access to wealthy end-market customers they will be unable to capitalise upon their expertise.

Solidus advertised on Telegram in 2018

Moos illustrated 25 Byzantine solidi that had been advertised on Telegram on 21 November 2018 (Moos 2020: 25). Gold that day was trading for 39 USD per gram, so inside Syria each coin would have been sold for approximately 176 USD, a total of 4,400 USD. The coins are only illustrated in reverse, but they look to be seventh century in date, from the reigns of the Byzantine emperors Phocas (602–610 AD), Heraclius (610–641 AD) and Constans II (641–668 AD). Over the period 2018–2019, the three UK/US companies sold 193 solidi attributed to these three emperors, for an average (mean) price of 496 USD and a median price 358 USD. A coin very similar to one illustrated by Moos, possibly the same coin, was sold recently on Catawiki as a solidus of Heraclius with Heraclius Constantine and Heraclonas for 455 EUR, say 500 USD (shown above). The Telegram account was used by members in Idlib Governorate in territory controlled by the Salafist group Hayat Tahrir as-Sham (HTS). HTS has imposed a 20 per cent tax on antiquities sales and is believed to monitor the Telegram account to ensure that tax is paid (Moos 2020: 7). Thus the seller of the solidi would have needed to pay 880 USD tax. It is possible that coins might be sold inside Syria for more than their bullion value, with their bullion value being declared to HTS for tax purposes (Moos 2020: 11). Nevertheless, prices on the ground would still need to reflect gold prices.  

Fluctuating gold price (goldprice.org)

At the present time, gold is selling for more than 60 USD per gram, so a solidus that in November 2018 might have been sold inside Syria for 176 USD could today be sold for 270 USD. For the hoard of 25 solidi, that would be 2,350 USD more. This marked increase in prices inside Syria might be enough to persuade some previously undecided people that it is worth their while to go out searching for gold coins to sell. High gold prices have not previously been considered an incentive for looting, but it is possible that they are just that.

1) Percentage bullion value = ((Price of solidus at sale/weight in grams of solidus)/Price per gram of gold on same day as sale)*100.

Reference

Moos, Olivier. 2020. Antiquities Trafficking in Syria. Religioscope.

Ongoing trade in cuneiform tablets

TimeLine Auctions has been doing a brisk trade in Iraqi cuneiform tablets this year. In its February sale, it offered and sold 14 cuneiform-inscribed objects for a total of £38,088 at an average price of £2,721. In its June sale, it offered 20 objects, selling 18 for a total of £36,810 at an average price of £2,045. A further 10 objects are offered in its forthcoming September sale. The tablets generally are of singular interest and look to be derived from one or more private collections. Provenance descriptions are vague as usual, usually anonymous, though often providing a date range to indicate the approximate timing of an object’s arrival in a private collection outside Iraq. The dating breakdown for 43 objects is as follows:

Provenance datingNumber of objects
1935-19651
1975-19851
Late 1980s–early 1990s24
Before 19922
1990-20004
1990s2
19981
Before 20001
No date7

Provenances can be invented and fabricated, but taking these TimeLine provenance dates at face value, only two objects can be placed outside Iraq before 6 August 1990, the date of United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 661. UNSCR 661 placed a trade embargo upon Iraqi goods, including cultural objects, and the embargo on cultural objects is still in force. It was reaffirmed in May 2003 by UNSCR 1483. Article 7 of UNSCR 1483 specifically states that the trade in Iraqi cultural objects would be prohibited when ‘reasonable suspicion exists that they have been illegally removed’ from Iraq since the adoption of UNSCR 661. On 14 June 2003, UNSCR 1483 was implemented in the United Kingdom as the Iraq (United Nations Sanctions) Order 2003. Article 8(2) of the Iraq (UN Sanctions) Order requires that:

Any person who holds or controls any item of illegally removed Iraqi cultural property must cause the transfer of that item to a constable.

Article 8(4) defines ‘illegally removed Iraqi cultural property’ as:

Iraqi cultural property and any other item of archaeological, historical, cultural, rare scientific or religious importance illegally removed from any location in Iraq since 6th August 1990.

Thus the date threshold in the UK for discriminating between Iraqi cultural objects legally and illegally on the market remains 6 August 1990. Any objects moved out of Iraq after that date must be surrendered to an appropriate law enforcement agency.

The TimeLine tablets that cannot definitively be placed outside Iraq before 6 August 1990 (all but two) were quite obviously not surrendered to law enforcement, presumably because it was impossible to prove that they actually did move out of Iraq after that date (which isn’t to say that they didn’t). Thus unless TimeLine has documentation with more precise dating information that it has decided not to share, the provenance dates provided for most objects straddle the 6 August 1990 threshold and are useless for determining the legitimacy of a piece according to UK law. Perhaps the objects concerned did all leave Iraq before 6 August 1990 – there is no way of knowing.

Having said that, three objects do look particularly suspect. The first is lot 259 sold for £16,000 in June 2020 with a provenance dated to the late 1980s-early 1990s. It is a rare Jemdet Nasr pictographic tablet that according to its provenance was published in 2016 by Salvatore F. Monaco as no. 131 in Archaic Cuneiform Tablets From Private Collections. Monaco commented that the texts published therein had been taken from photographs of tablets sold on the Internet that:

all come from Illicit excavations, which, although carried out by looters since the middle of the nineteenth century, had recently attained, as a consequence of the political situation, an unprecedented level of growth (Monaco 2016: 1).

The second is lot 242 sold for £2,800 in June 2020 with a provenance dated to the late 1980s-early 1990s. It is a New Babylonian foundation brick from Larsa carrying an inscription of Nebuchadnezzar. Nearly a decade ago now, I drew attention to similar bricks appearing on the market, showing how they had been cut down from their original size, presumably to facilitate transport (Brodie 2011: 125-126). Since then, I have been sporadically monitoring the market and I have now logged more than 30 examples of similar cut-down bricks. Although some have unconfirmed provenance dates stretching back to the 1960s, none was documented publicly before 2003 and the suspicion persists that these bricks were all looted from Larsa in the early 2000s.

Finally, there is lot 175 in the forthcoming September 2020 sale, which is a large Ur III administrative tablet attributed to Adad-tillati of the site of Garšana. There is no date included in the provenance description. Garšana is notorious as a site looted sometime during the 1990s and the source of a large archive of Adad-tillati tablets, most of which are in the possession of Cornell University (Owen and Mayr 2007; Molina 2020: 325-327).

The sale of these three objects calls into question TimeLine’s due diligence. If I can discover suspicious uncertainties about their provenance, anyone can. Does TimeLine simply take the consignor’s word at face value, or does it conduct its own provenance research or validation? Apparently, it leaves responsibility (and any culpability) with the (anonymous) consignor. In its extremely small print terms and conditions, TimeLine has this to say:

TimeLine do not make or give any guarantee, warranty or representation or undertake any duty of care in relation to the description, illustrations or photographs of any Lot, including condition, quality, provenance, authenticity, background, style, period, age, origin, value and estimated selling price. TimeLine undertakes no obligation to examine, investigate or carry out any tests either in sufficient depth or at all to establish the accuracy or otherwise of any description or opinions given by TimeLine whether in the catalogue or elsewhere.

No guarantee or duty of care regarding provenance. Caveat emptor. The small print continues:

in submitting any Lot for sale, the Seller warrants and represents to TimeLine the matters set out in the Property Acceptance/Receipt and Seller’s statement of provenance.

That is the summary of TimeLine’s due diligence: requesting the consignor to sign off on provenance. TimeLine is protecting itself but not the buyer.

Contrast TimeLine’s policy of absent due diligence to the more proactive one advocated by the Antiquities Dealers Association (ADA) in its code of conduct:

Members undertake to carry out Due Diligence, as set out under this Code, to ensure, as far as they are able, that objects in which they trade were not stolen from excavations, architectural monuments, public institutions or private property and are lawfully on the market for sale.

Members will make all reasonable enquiries to ascertain earlier ownership history of any object they are considering purchasing, mindful that the illicit removal of archaeological objects from their original context is damaging to our knowledge and understanding of the past.

The ADA subscribes to the tenets of the Hague Convention and will pay particular attention to items that may have originated from conflict zones.

In these instances further documentation should be sought from the seller demonstrating they have been in circulation outside the conflict zone prior to conflict.

The ADA is also governed by the following: Objects originating from Syria are subject to restrictions as required by (EU) Council Regulation No. 1332/2013 of 13 December 2013 amending (EU) Council Regulation No. 36/2012 of 18 January 2012 concerning restrictive measures in view of the situation in Syria. The Iraq (United Nations Sanctions) Order 2003 prohibits the importation or exportation of any cultural property illegally removed from Iraq since 6 August 1990.

Thus for objects from Iraq, the ADA requires its members to seek ‘further documentation’ supporting an object’s legitimacy, not simply to secure a warranty. TimeLine is not a member of the ADA and so is not in contravention of the ADA’s code. TimeLine is a member of the Association of International Dealers (AIAD), which states in its own more limited code of conduct:

4. PROVENANCE. The Member agrees to maintain full and accurate records of relevant sales and purchases. Provenance of any item offered for sale is to be established to the extent that this is reasonably achievable, and the description thereof is to be as full and accurate as possible.

8. The Member agrees not knowingly to deal in any cultural objects that have left Iraq after 6/8/90, in compliance with The Iraq (U.N. Sanctions) Order 2003 (S.I. 2003/1519).

According to its small print terms and conditions, TimeLine interprets ‘reasonably achievable’ as meaning nothing at all. And if it isn’t actively looking for evidence of illegal trading it will not find it and cannot knowingly deal in cultural objects that have left Iraq since 6 August 1990, even if they have. This looks a lot like wilful avoidance of disagreeable and commercially damaging evidence of wrongdoing. It casts doubt upon the integrity of TimeLine, and because it is in full accord with the AIAD code of conduct, upon the AIAD itself.

Prominently displayed on the TimeLine website is the logo of the Art Loss Register (ALR). I have complained previously about the ALR badging TimeLine, and the logo now qualifies that:

All lots with an upper estimate value of £1,000 and above, and all Western Asiatic lots are searched against the Art Loss Register database.

So, all these cuneiform tablets (Western Asiatic lots) will have been searched against the ALR database. This is necessary but not sufficient provenance research. ALR certificates state that they do not provide a clean bill of health for antiquities, merely that searched antiquities have not been reported stolen. For looted antiquities, clandestinely excavated, that can never be the case. For cuneiform tablets of the type being discussed here, a search is practically worthless. it obviously failed to uncover anything untoward about the three suspect objects I have highlighted. So the prominent placement of the ALR logo, while technically and legally correct, might give the impression to a naïve customer that the provenance of an object being offered for sale has been well researched, which is not in fact the case. The logo provides the appearance but not the substance of appropriate due diligence. It does more to protect TimeLine’s reputation than it does to ensure its commercial probity. It remains the case that the ALR needs to reconsider its association with a company openly failing to conduct its own provenance research and placing itself outside generally accepted standards of professional practice as advertised by the ADA.  

If any or all of the cuneiform tablets offered by TimeLine were taken from Iraq after 6 August 1990, which seems possible if not likely, it demonstrates how after a period of time spent languishing in anonymous private collections they can be sold openly without fear of any police or legal action. The objects are in effect ‘gray’, as in Mackenzie and Yates’ second sense of the term. Three are very dark gray indeed – almost black.

References

Brodie, Neil, 2011. Academic involvement in the market in Iraqi antiquities, in Crime in the Art and Antiquities World: Illegal Trafficking in Cultural Property, edited by Stefano Manacorda and Duncan Chappell. New York: Springer, 117-133.

Molina, Manuel, 2020. The looting of Ur III tablets after the Gulf Wars, in Dealing with Antiquity: Past, Present & Future, edited by Walter Sommerfeld. Münster: Ugarit, 323-352.

Monaco Salvatore F., 2016. Archaic Cuneiform Tablets From Private Collections, (Cornell University Studies in Assyriology and Sumerology 31). Bethesda: CDL.

Owen, David I. and Rudolf H. Mayr, 2007. The Garšana Archives, (Cornell University Studies in Assyriology and Sumerology 3). Bethesda: CDL.