Friday, 3 July 2015

Collectors (and dealers) are the new museums ― part 4

Most of the coins of the Fishpool hoard.
© Trustees of the British Museum 

When I first started looking at the British Museum collections database, their details on the Fishpool hoard confused me. While the number of coins in the hoard that they give is accurate, they do not mention that the museum does not have at least 85 of the coins. These went straight to the market and were sold at the Glendining "Fishpool Hoard sale of October 17, 1968. I first became aware of the hoard from an article in Seaby's bulletin not long after that. Seaby's also had some of the 85 coins for sale. It is also not mentioned that because some of the coins could be grouped together from their wear patterns that did not correspond to other, similar, coins in the hoard, it was thought that the hoard was more of a "bankers hoard" than that of an individual and represented the savings of a number of people. I think that more coins would have been released to the market had it not been for some impropriety committed by all but one of the finders. It is unclear as to whether the "lucky little boy" included his four coin reward with the rest of the Glendining sale. The coins are still circulating among collectors with two of the Fishpool coins in this Baldwin sale of just a few years ago. Not the huge differences in values over the years.

Back in the early sixties, when I first started to collect coins, it was very common for museums (especially the British Museum) to retain only those Treasure Trove hoard coins that were needed for their collection. The rest were allowed to the market where they might inspire far more than by sitting in a museum case while the visitors filed by.

One of the greatest advantages of allowing a hoard to be sold at auction is that its catalogue soon becomes a standard reference as not only are the coins properly catalogued, but details of the find and the background history of the hoard is also included. No taxpayers were inconvenienced by the production of this catalogue. No taxpayers footed the bill for the coins not retained by the British Museum. The catalogue had a far greater circulation than any paper on the hoard.

Unfortunately, such hoards are now treated as fetish objects and are imbued with the same psychic significance as was given to saint's relics in the history of the Christian Church. Science pays dearly for this attitude as many museums are reluctant to allow the even slight damage from polishing a 40 micron area of a metal object for a fairly accurate electron microprobe analysis. This was a test I eagerly had done to the first British find of the early Celtic plastic style. I expect the British Museum will be less curious about the second example. Don't hold your breath waiting for science on that one. Religious proselytizing is the archaeological raison d'être of today. Welcome to the new dark ages.

Wishing all my American friends a very happy Fourth of July, I'll be back on Monday with more in this series.

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