New coins on the auction block

In 2014, a previously unknown type of Byzantine hexagram appeared on the market. Hexagrams are silver coins introduced in 615 AD by the emperor Heraclius and continued to be struck through into the 680s towards the end of the reign of his great-grandson Constantine IV (668-685) (Grierson 1999: 13). Dating to the reign of Constans II (641-668), these newly recognised hexagrams carry a bust of Constans II on the obverse and three standing figures of his sons Tiberius, Constantine IV and Heraclius on the reverse. By the end of 2015, six examples had appeared, which could be divided stylistically into fine and crude groups (Woods 2015). No new examples have appeared since then. The six known examples are listed on the Sixbid Coin Collector’s Archive:

 Auction dateAuctionPrice (EUR)
121 October 2014
5 April 2015
Nomos, Auction 9, lot 320
Pecunem, Auction 30, lot 610
Not sold
4250
210 December 2014Rauch, Auction 96, lot 6473500
39 March 2015Gorny, Auction 228, lot 7563800
413 March 2015
27 June 2015
Kunker, Auction 262, lot 8474
Roma, E-sale 18, lot 1210
Not sold
4212
522 March 2015Roma, Auction IX, lot 9056892
627 September 2015Roma, Auction X, lot 9316532

The description provided for the first one of these coins to be offered for sale in October 2014 at Nomos stated that it was “Of the greatest rarity, one of apparently two known examples, and unpublished” and that it was “uncleaned as found”. Two months later in December 2014, Rauch stated the coin it was offering was the third known copy. And so it went on:

Roma, 22 March 2015: “The fourth known example of this interesting type”.

Roma, 27 June 2015: “The fifth known example of this interesting type”.

Roma, 27 September 2015: “the sixth and finest known example of the type”.

The coin sold at the March 2015 Roma sale was bought by Dumbarton Oaks (BZC.2015.003). On its website, it describes the coin as the “Fourth specimen known of this type, which is missing from reference books”.

Dumbarton Oaks BZC.2015.003

It has been argued that because the coins all appeared on the market at the same time they may have come from a single hoard (Woods 2015: 174, note 10). Although no hexagrams of this type are known to have been found in modern-day Syria or its immediately neighbouring countries, historical sources support the further argument that they were in circulation there (Woods 2015: 180). Thus in all probability they were found there.

Clearly, the buyers and sellers were all aware that the coins were new to the market. Their descriptions said as much. Whether or not they suspected a Syrian origin is not possible to say, but they should have done. Let’s remember what was happening back then. In September 2013, ICOM released its Emergency Red List of Syrian Cultural Objects at Risk, which highlighted Achaemenid to Ottoman period coins. On 16 May 2015, US Special Forces raided the Syrian compound of Abu Sayyaf, head of the Da’esh Diwan al Rikaz (Ministry of Natural Resources and Minerals, including its Antiquities Division), where they recovered ancient coins from Syria and Iraq and there were electronic images of more gold coins and jewellery on his computer. In November 2015, Yaya J. Fanusie and Alexander Joffe published a report on Daesh’s antiquities trafficking, claiming that “Coins and other metal objects have emerged as particularly attractive items for IS”. So, by late 2015 at the very latest, it was widely known that there was an illegal trade in ancient coins out of Syria and that it was an important source of revenue for Salafist-jihadist groups such as Da’esh. And legislators were paying attention. In December 2013, European Union (EU) Council Regulation no. 1332/2013 concerning restrictive measures in view of the situation in Syria placed a trade embargo on Syrian cultural objects illegally removed from Syria on or after 9 May 2011. In February 2015, United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 2199 placed a trade embargo on Syrian cultural objects removed illegally from Syria after 15 March 2011.

If as numismatic opinion suggests these new coins really were found in Syria, what were they doing being sold in Europe in apparent contravention of EU Regulation no. 1332/2013? Did anybody report the coins to the police? It appears not. When faced with unevidenced claims that unprovenanced antiquities are illicit in some way, dealers are always quick to claim they must be considered innocent until proven guilty. This is a good sound bite, but unfortunately very far from the mark. They would have us believe that the legitimacy of an unprovenanced antiquity is subject to the same burden of proof as the guilt of a person. But it is not. Civil disputes over ownership are decided on the balance of probabilities, not upon demonstration of guilt beyond reasonable doubt. Applying this standard, the appearance of a small hoard of previously unattested silver coins of a type known to have been circulating in Syria or its neighbouring countries at a time when there was also known to be active large scale looting and trafficking of ancient coins out of Syria might suggest, on balance, that the coins really were from Syria. Not that this probable conclusion concerned their buyers and sellers.

Mind you, they might have good reason for their apparent unconcern. EU Regulation 1332/2013 states that it applies to “Syrian cultural property goods and other goods of archaeological, historical, cultural, rare scientific or religious importance, including those listed in Annex XI”. Unfortunately, Annex XI does not specifically list ancient coins, except as category 13(b) “Collections of historical, palaeontological, ethnographic or numismatic interest”. But close inspection of Annex XI reveals the listing to be problematical. Category 13, based upon Harmonized Commodity Description and Coding System (HS) 9705.00 lists:

13(a) Collections and specimens from zoological, botanical, mineralogical or anatomical collections;

13(b) Collections of historical, palaeontological, ethnographic or numismatic interest.

The same listings appear as Category 13 in Annex 1 of the 2008 EU Council Regulation no. 116/2009 on the export of cultural goods. So, while Category 13(a) of these annexes includes “collections and specimens”, Category 13(b) includes only “collections”. These definitions are at variance with the WCO listings of 9705.00, which include “Collections and collectors’ pieces of zoological, botanical, mineralogical, anatomical, historical, archaeological, palaeontological, ethnographic or numismatic interest”. As the WCO developed the list, it is presumably the authoritative version. Thus, while the WCO explicitly includes “collectors’ pieces of numismatic interest”, the EC Regulations don’t. It might be a drafting error. But it might also lead reasonable people to believe that the omission is deliberate, and that neither Regulation 1332/2013 nor Regulation 116/2009 is intended to apply to “collectors’ pieces of numismatic interest”. In other words, the trade of individual coins is not subject to legal control.

Or maybe it is. In both Regulations, the term “collections” in Category 13(b) is qualified by the following footnote:

As defined by the Court of Justice in its judgment in Case 252/84 as follows: “Collectors’ pieces within the meaning of heading No 97.05 of the Common Customs Tariff are articles which possess the requisite characteristics for inclusion in a collection, that is to say, articles which are relatively rare, are not normally used for their original purpose, are the subject of special transactions outside the normal trade in similar utility articles and are of high value”.

In defining “collectors’ pieces”, the footnote implies that Category 13(b) should indeed include “collectors’ pieces”, so perhaps their omission is more by accident than by design. But the footnote raises further unfortunate ambiguities. What exactly does it mean by “relatively rare” and “high value”? Neither Regulation offers any guidance. The hexagrams are obviously rare. There are only six of them known. But what about value? The Sixbid Archive registers 182 Byzantine hexagrams sold between 2011 and 2019 for 61,888 EUR in total at an average (mean) price of 340 EUR and a median price of 181 EUR. The cheapest was 45 EUR and the most expensive was 3,752 EUR. So, for a hexagram, the new type might be considered high value, though not when compared to other coins, contemporary gold solidi, for example. And the prices achieved at auction in Europe would be higher than those declared on import documents. But more guidance is offered by the March 2019 EU Regulation 2019/880 on the introduction and the import of cultural goods. This Regulation establishes in its Annex that it applies to “antiquities, such as inscriptions, coins and engraved seals”, but seemingly judging rarity by value, it applies only to objects valued at more than 18,000 EUR. That is a far higher price than anything achieved by these new (or any) hexagrams.

So, the import and trade of these previously unknown Constans II hexagrams would appear to be in accord with the letter if not the spirit of the law. They were probably found in Syria, but possibly not. Their trade may be subject to legal control, but almost certainly not. If the purpose of regulatory instruments is to control illicit trade, they need to be much clearer about just what it is exactly they are trying to control. The law needs tightening, to say the least. And in the absence of legal clarity, there is no point trying to raise awareness about the harmful consequences of the trade in ancient coins, and particularly coins from Syria where evidence suggests that the trade is profiting Salafist-jihadist groups. There is no point either in making appeals for more ethical business practices when the perception will be that the appeals are asking legitimate businesses to go above and beyond what is strictly required of them by law. With profits at stake, that will not happen.

References

Grierson, Philip, 1999. Byzantine Coinage. Washington DC: Dumbarton Oaks.

Woods, David, 2015. Muʽāwiyah, Constans II and coins without crosses, Israel Numismatic Research 10: 169-182.

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.

Incident at Bodrum Airport

On 19 August an Englishman was arrested when leaving Turkey in possession of 12 ancient coins. He had found the coins while snorkelling on holiday and was stopped by security at Bodrum Airport. On the face of it, the arrest looks to be a completely disproportionate response to a trivial infraction, punishing a naive holidaymaker for an innocent mistake in misappropriating a handful of old coins. But take a step back for a minute, reflect upon the broader context, and the Turkish action looks justifiable, commendable even.

Since 2014, the international community has been concerned about the terrorist group Daesh (Islamic State) profiting from the sale of looted and trafficked antiquities. Much of this material has passed from Syria into Turkey, and then on to Europe. From seizures made inside Turkey, it is known that the bulk comprises ancient coins. Many of these trafficked coins are likely being sold on eBay and other websites by traders based in the United Kingdom (England to be precise). In March 2015, for example, a Daily Mail investigation headlined ‘2000-year-old artefacts looted by ISIS from ancient sites in Iraq and Syria are being sold on EBAY’, with images of Syrian coins selling for between £57 and £90 each (though not actually looted by Daesh). Turkey is under international pressure to choke this Daesh income stream by stopping the trade passing through its territory. In these circumstances, an Englishman secretly moving ancient coins out of the country must be a viable suspect, one to be held pending further investigation. Maybe he is part of a larger trafficking ring operating out of England? Presumably he will be proved innocent, and the coins will be shown not to have originated in Syria, though taking Turkish coins is in itself an offence. But it is important to know that in the fight against terrorism the Turkish border authorities are doing their job, acting with competence and vigilance when the easy option would have been to confiscate the coins and wave the tourist through. In the United Kingdom, we would expect nothing less of our own border force. The man is now in custody in Turkey. Hopefully he will be released sometime soon. After all, it is not in Turkey’s interest to be frightening away innocent tourists. But we must remember, like most other countries of the world, Turkish public services have been hollowed out by austerity-driven budget cuts, and the release process might take longer than we would like.

Assuming he is innocent, and that Turkey has acted correctly in accordance with international expectations, is anybody to blame? There is endless talk in policy circles of reducing demand for ancient coins and other antiquities by raising public awareness of the issues and risks involved in their trade. But no one seems to have raised the arrested man’s awareness. Flight operators and holiday agencies do nothing to alert customers to the dangers of acquiring ancient coins and antiquities. There is nothing to be seen on the pages of in-flight magazines. Indeed, the opposite is sometimes the case. The British government has done nothing to warn holidaymakers. Where are the announcements in newspapers or on prime-time television? Where are the notices at airport departure desks? There has been much tough talk about the need to stop Daesh from profiting from the antiquities trade, but little concrete action. So rather than criticising Turkey for taking a strong stand against antiquities trafficking, we should look closer to home and ask what more can be done to prevent holidaymakers from breaking the law of foreign countries, and why the British government is not acting to stop its citizens from inadvertently committing illegal acts while abroad. English sellers of trafficked ancient coins must also share some of the blame as they have helped create the problem in the first place. Coins are only trafficked because people are there to buy and sell them. But by their actions they have also raised an atmosphere of scepticism and distrust in Turkey, so that a well-meaning tourist might be suspected of being part of something larger and more sinister than is actually the case. Shame on them.

Trafficking out of Syria

The civil war in Syria that started in 2011 is now in its sixth year. During that time, archaeological and other cultural sites including museums have been destructively looted of their saleable contents. It is widely believed that the looted artifacts have been moved illegally out of Syria for sale in Europe and North America. To date, however, there have been few if any verifiable reports of (post-2011) trafficked Syrian objects appearing there.

The scale of the destruction caused by looting and trafficking has been demonstrated by projects such as the American Schools of Oriental Research’s (ASOR) Cultural Heritage Initiatives and Oxford University’s Endangered Archaeology of the Middle East and North Africa (EAMENA). These projects have used satellite imagery to identify looted sites, assign them to likely zones of combatant control, assess the extent and severity of damage caused to individual sites, and establish a tentative timeline. Jesse Casana, for example, has reported that since 2011, 23 per cent of all archaeological sites in Syria have been damaged by looting [1]. The bare statistics do not do full justice to the stark reality of the situation, however, hiding the fact exposed by satellite imagery that some important sites such as the Hellenistic-Roman towns of Apamea and Dura Europas have been largely obliterated by illegal digging. The problem is ongoing. In April 2016, the ASOR Cultural Heritage Initiatives project reported looting at the Roman sites of Bosra and Palmyra. Looting has occurred in territories controlled by all combatant factions, though has been more severe in territory controlled by Daesh.

There have been many seizures of trafficked Syrian objects in the neighbouring ‘transit’ countries of Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, but nothing comparable in the ‘market’ countries of Western Europe and North America. Suspicions have been voiced that criminal entrepreneurs are warehousing material until such time as the trading environment is more conducive for onwards sale, or are trading it out of sight on the Dark Web. An alternative and simpler explanation is that trafficked material is being sold openly in Europe and North America, but is not being recognized for what it is. Expectations as to what types of object might be looted and trafficked have been conditioned by what is known of material moved out of Syria before 2011. Several examples of large, culturally and monetarily valuable pieces left Syria illegally and were recovered in the 1990s and 2000s. But these objects were moved out of Syria at a time of relative stability, and there is evidence of regime connivance that would have provided the necessary transport and allowed border controls and other legal obstacles to be bypassed [2]. Since 2011, this type of condoned or tolerated trade of large objects will have become increasingly untenable. Media reports from the border area of southern Turkey show instead the trafficking of coins, jewellery and other small objects that can be easily concealed and transported. Similarly, when on 16 May 2015, US Special Forces raided the Syrian compound of Abu Sayyaf, the head of Daesh’s administrative section for the supervision of excavation and trade of cultural objects, many of the cultural objects recovered in his possession were coins from Syria and Iraq, as well as electronic images of gold coins and jewellery.

Thus it is possible that the pattern of illegal trade post-2011 has shifted from small quantities of large, high-value objects to larger quantities of predominantly smaller, lower-value objects. The illegal excavation of large numbers of small, relatively low-value objects would be more damaging to archaeological sites than the illegal excavation of fewer, larger, high-value objects. This possible change in strategy is in accordance with the evidence of extensive digging that is captured on satellite imagery. Large numbers of small, low-value objects would still in aggregate generate appreciable profits for those involved in trafficking. But although it is reasonably easy to demonstrate the sale in Europe and North America of small objects that might have been found in Syria, it is harder to identify objects that really were without doubt found in Syria, and not in a neighbouring country. Thus it is difficult to confirm this suggested shift in trafficking strategy

Coins from mints of known location offer one possible way forward. In September 2015, Ute Wartenberg Kagan, who is executive director of the American Numismatic Society, presented a paper on Syrian coins at a meeting held at New York’s Metropolitan Museum to discuss the looting and trafficking of Syrian cultural objects. She suggested ‘the strong probability that a significant number of certain types of coins on today’s market likely originated in Syria’. She showed, for example, that the average number of radiate coins of Zenobia and her son Vabalathus struck during the year AD 272 appearing each year on the market after 2011 was nearly double the equivalent figure for the previous three decades.

Jack Nurpetlian has recently made publicly available the text of his February 2013 PhD thesis entitled Coinage in Late Hellenistic and Roman Syria: The Orontes Valley (1st Century – 3rd Century AD). In it he presents a comprehensive catalogue of all Roman provincial coins known to him by the end of June 2012 that were minted in the towns of the Orontes Valley between 64 BC and AD 253, including coins in private and museum collections and present on the market during his period of study. The catalogue provides invaluable baseline data for further study of the market in Syrian coins. Looking, for example, at silver tetradrachms minted in the town of Emesa (modern Homs) during the reigns of emperors Caracalla and Macrinus (AD 198 to AD 218). The catalogue records 112 tetradrachms in collections, with a further 116 on the market. The time span of the market study is not provided, but looks to have run from 2005 to 2012. So, on average, during the seven-year period ending in 2012, 17 new tetradrachms were appearing on the market each year. Since the catalogue was compiled, a further 91 examples have appeared on the market, or on average 23 new tetradrachms per year. This increase is smaller though broadly in line with those presented by Wartenberg Kagan. During the entire period in question (2005 to 2016), the lowest priced tetradrachm sold for $33 and the highest priced for a surprising $3,250, with a mean price of $263. Although the tetradrachms were minted in Emesa, they enjoyed a wide circulation, and there have been documented finds on sites throughout Syria, including 13 at Dura Europos, as well as some in Israel and Palestine. Thus the examples arriving on the market after 2012 could conceivably have come from anywhere in Syria, though a possible origin in Israel and Palestine where the looting and trafficking of ancient coins has also been a problem cannot be excluded.

The coin data do suggest the increasing arrival on the market of small objects moved out of Syria post-2011, and that they are going largely unrecognized – or at least unreported. It adds credence to the idea that other small objects of Syrian origin have been arriving on the market. If that is the case, then the presently established suppositions about the organization of trafficking will be mistaken, and there will be consequences for crime control policy and practical law enforcement. A low-volume trade of large, expensive objects presupposes the participation of a limited number of criminals, perhaps acting in long-term cooperation, and exercising a good degree of control over the organization and operation of trafficking. It would be vulnerable to targeted law enforcement aiming to disrupt trade by apprehending offenders. A higher-volume trade of smaller, cheaper objects would be harder to tackle. It would most likely be dispersed, involving a larger number of people, and more loosely organized. It would be flexible and opportunistic and able to survive the occasional removal of participating criminals. Furthermore, the small amounts of money involved in individual transactions would diminish the apparent seriousness of crimes and reduce the public interest requirement for committing adequate resources to their investigation and prosecution. Thus the case for and effectiveness of targeted law enforcement would both be weakened.

Crime control policy and its practical implementation need to be sensitive to the organization of the illegal trade they are intending to prevent. It is a matter of some urgency that the nature and organization of the post-2011 trade out of Syria should be properly characterized so that appropriate and effective countermeasures can be planned and implemented.

References

  1. Casana, Jesse, 2015. Satellite imagery-based analysis of archaeological looting in Syria, Near Eastern Archaeology 78(3): 142-52.
  2. Brodie, Neil, 2015. Syria and its regional neighbors: A case of cultural property protection policy failure? International Journal of Cultural Property 22: 317-35.