Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Collectors (and dealers) are the new museums ― part 2

The person who had the most profound effect on numismatics in the twentieth century is, as far as I know, not a numismatist. Sir Tim Berners-Lee invented the WWW, and numismatics will never be the same again.

If I had to choose just one numismatist who best used this new technology to educate people about their favorite topic in the early days of the WWW, it would be Doug Smith for his "Doug Smith's Ancient Coins (originally, "Ancient Greek and Roman Coins"). Since he first uploaded his web site in 1997, many other dealers and collectors have followed his lead. A number of auction houses and coin dealers retain archives of sold coins on their web sites and many of these allow free reproduction of their images for non-profit use. The V-Coins Mall provides the facility for their dealers.The research pages of Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. (C.N.G.) being the best-known and I have made much use of their free images.

The last time that I visited the coin department of the British Museum was in 1966. At that time, the door of that department had no sign on it. The Greek coins that were displayed for the public were all British Museum electrotypes. If you wanted to see a specific coin you had to go to the coin department and sign in with details about why you were there. The British Museum Greek coin catalogues were almost hopelessly out of date, but at least they are now on line (thanks to another amateur, Ed Snible).

Other people got permissions from auction houses to maintain search engines of coins sold. Most notable among these are Coin Archives and Ancient Coin Search (AC Search).

With such a profusion of amateur and professional numismatic educational sites it is necessary to clarify where the best knowledge in numismatics might be found. At the very top of the list are the specialist collectors: when I recatalogued the Wallace collection of Euboean (Greece) coinage, I handled about ten times the number of coins in the British Museum Catalogue. This is the sort of collector to approach for your toughest questions.

For general inquiries about ancient coins, do not visit a museum: they actually see very few coins compared with the larger dealers in ancient coins. Most professional numismatists are also dealers. Some of them gave up more financially rewarding professions in order to be around what they loved. While still professional, such people are true amateurs at heart. For anyone with literacy problems, an amateur does it for the love of the subject, and passion is what leads to expertise. An amateur is not someone who does something badly, as in "amateurish".

A couple of anti-collecting bloggers have been deliberately feeding everyone disinformation by saying that the real professional numismatists are all academic. While this provokes much laughter among dealers and collectors in the know, the public are easily duped. Understand it this way: the larger dealers and auction houses depend on their knowledge for their livelihood. If they are lacking in that knowledge, their business will suffer. They also see far more coins every month than are seen by any museum staff. Nothing much bad happens to academic numismatists unless their errors are severe and they have no tenure. I met such a numismatist. This person had a Ph.D from Cambridge University, but such qualifications are usually given to a very specific subject within numismatics and is no guarantee that other aspects of numismatics will be understood very well. This person became the curator of a museum collection. Someone brought that person a Ptolemaic Egyptian bronze coin for identification. Even a ten year old beginning collector of ancient Greek coins would recognize a Ptolemaic bronze coin (ten year olds can afford one). He or she might not know which Ptolemy issued the coin, the designs are often very conservative, and require expert knowledge, but that a coin is Ptolemaic rarely presents much of a problem for the beginner, and they have some features unique to them. This curator, however, did not even recognize the very common coin as being Ptolemaic. The very last action taken by this curator, was to have all of the Greek silver coins sent to a jeweller to be buffed so they would be nice and shiny for the public.

So how can you tell if an academic really knows their stuff? Two questions should serve your problems:

How long has this person studied coins? If it is more than twenty years then you might be OK. Numismatics has no degrees, such are degrees in other subjects like history or archaeology. No one is going to be an expert after only the few years necessary to obtain such a degree unless they had a lot more years of study than just that.

How much help are they giving to beginners and even advanced collectors through the various numismatic fora or their websites and blogs?

Actions always speak louder than words.

Tomorrow: how the WWW changed the ancient coin market.

To my Canadian readers, have a very happy Canada Day!


  1. And a happy Canada Day to you, John. Trefor

  2. Thanks Trefor, I was out most of the day with Tristan and we were going to visit the First Nation's Powow on Prince's Island, but I remembered that dogs are not allowed at events there. Too bad, taking a coydog there would have had mythological significance -- there's a Blackfoot legend about Old Man and Coyote. I might catch the fireworks tonight.