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Coins and the Law : Media rush to judgement challenged

By Wayne Sayles – Ancient Coin Collecting Blog ………..

Editors Note: It is shocking how ignorant and misinformed the media is when it comes to issues surrounding Coins and numismatics, and even more troubling when politics and special interest agendas come into play. CoinWeeks’ good friend ,respected wordsmith and unequaled advocate for ancient coin collectors interests, Wayne Sayles, has recently posted two items on his Ancient Coin Collecting Blog having to do with media reports on the “looting and sale” of Syrian coins and artifacts by ISIS, along with the “knee jerk” reaction by cultural property activists. We will let the reader draw your own conclusions….

The international media has long been challenged in its ability to print the truth, whole truth and nothing but the truth, but a new pinnacle of absurdity has been achieved in a so-called news report on “RT News”.

The report plays on public ignorance and seeks to inflame reader passions with outrageous claims about cultural property looting in Syria.  The motivation for this article is highly suspect and a senseless diversion from the genuine crisis of destroyed monuments and real cases of tragic loss in the region.  The supposed “facts” in this report stem from a purported interview in Lebanon with a Syrian looter named “Mustafa”.   The claims seem intended mainly to bolster a recent open letter from more than 80 “prominent scholars” calling for a U.N. ban on the trade of Syrian antiquities—hardly coincidental.


The wares being offered by this “Syrian” subject are shown in a video and in several still photos.  They comprise an indistinct pile of purportedly ancient uncleaned coins and miscellanea.  However, the coins that are visible and highlighted in the video are very poor tourist fakes that would make even the most naive archaeologist cringe and any experienced collector laugh (or cry). The remainder are typical low grade surface finds from the region, many with obvious bronze disease and of very little interest or value to either collectors or archaeologists.  Mustafa will certainly not buy his coveted rifle with this group, much less the heavier weapons he supposedly seeks.  So what is the point of this RT News article?  Apparently for cultural property nationalists to promote their agenda—Carpe Diem.

The article quotes the supposed looter as saying “these antiquities smuggled from Syria now form up to 50 percent of the European markets.”  That is a preposterous statement and not something that any responsible journalist or editor would endorse in print.  Actually, the whole article reminds one of the yellow journalism of years gone by and appears now as a very thinly veiled attempt to criminalize the collecting of ancient coins and portable antiquities.  Those responsible for this sort of baseless vilification are really little better than the looters they decry.  Their agenda-driven ideological fervor is as irrational as it is fanatical.



A month after the above reports were posted, the following was presented by Mr Sayles….

Chasing Aphrodite blogger Jason Felch surely surprised some in the world of Archaeobloggers and Cultural Property Nationalists when he recently challenged a rash of sensationalized media claims on the part of “scholars” and “experts”.   The topic of this latest “meme” is the funding of terrorism and specifically of ISIS in Syria and Iraq.   A “sandstorm” of pronouncements in various media have claimed that the sale of antiquities looted by ISIS is a multi-billion dollar enterprise, second only to their revenues from looted oil.   While the evidence of ISIS looting and/or intentional destruction of cultural property is undeniable, the connection to ISIS funding through the sale of antiquities is far more spurious. That evidence is conspicuously lacking and the trade is essentially devoid of material that could conceivably have come through the hands of ISIS.  Are these calls for embargo then strictly for show?  I fear they are not.  They are part of a deliberate long term program of disinformation.

The sensational headlines generated by supposed “expert” testimony may seem justified to some.  After all, what comes through loud and clear is the loss of cultural heritage—a disaster certainly worthy of concern.  However, less obvious to the general public is a not-so-subtle underlying crusade that threatens the very underpinnings of law, order and justice.  Accompanying the claims that collectors fund terrorism are self-serving calls from the archaeological community and its minions for overreaching trade sanctions in the name of heritage preservation.  The connection is not coincidental.

History confirms that a rise in ideological fervor to the level of zealotry often leads to excess.  The zealotry in this case is opposition to the private collecting of virtually anything of interest to Archaeologists.  Unfortunately, many of the zealots in this crusade are more than willing to overlook the due process of law and apparently believe that the end justifies the means.  The United States was a participant in the 1970 UNESCO convention dealing with ownership of cultural property.  The implementing law in this country was carefully considered, debated and adjusted prior to its eventual enactment in 1983.  Consequently, CCPIA provides very clear and precise rules for government intervention in the trade of cultural property.  It is, in my opinion, a very well thought out and fair piece of legislation and remains in force today.  Because of CCPIA, unnecessary widespread restrictions on the antiquities trade have been made more difficult.  For that reason, opponents of private collecting have sought by various means to circumvent the letter and intent of the legislation.  It is worth noting that the current calls for trade restrictions or embargos seek action in the form of Executive Order rather than consideration under the prevailing law—where the public has a voice.

The Chasing Aphrodite blog also raises an intriguing connection between the State Department and archaeologists making these unsupportable claims.  Indeed, the State Department has lauded their research.  The American School of Oriental Research, ardently anti-trade, reportedly received $600,000 from State to track the condition of cultural sites in Syria.  One can’t help but wonder if some of that money enriched anti-trade PR programs.  It seems that the fabrication of statistics on cultural property issues has become another cottage industry in the field of archaeology.  Reading the comments appended to Jason Felch’s blog post is itself quite enlightening.  The point is well made there by some insiders that this sort of yellow journalism will ultimately backfire.


Wayne Sayles
Wayne Sayles
Retiring in 1982 from the U.S. Air Force, Wayne earned a MA degree in Art History at the Univ. of Wisconsin. In 1986, he founded The Celator — a monthly journal about ancient coins. He co-authored "Turkoman Figural Bronze Coins and Their Iconography" (2 vols.) and wrote the six vol. series "Ancient Coin Collecting" (3 are in expanded 2nd ed.), the monograph "Classical Deception" and the exhibition catalogue for the Griner collection of ancient coins at Ball State University. He wrote the "Coin Collecting" article and revised the main "Coins" article for Encyclopaedia Britannica. Wayne is a Life Fellow of the ANS; Fellow of the RNS (London); Life Member of the Hellenic Numismatic Society (Athens); Life Member of AINS; and member of numerous other numismatic organizations including the American Numismatic Association and the Numismatic Literary Guild. He is the founder and current Executive Director of the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild, has lectured extensively, written more than 200 articles about ancient coinage, and is a recipient of the "Numismatic Ambassador" award from Krause Publications. He is a biographee in Marquis, "Who's Who in America" and in "Who's Who in the World".

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