Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by the British Numismatic Trade Association

The Association was founded in 1973 and represents the leading dealers in ancient, medieval and modern coins.

  Before embarking on setting out our proposals, we feel we must ask whether the Committee has a copy of the report commissioned by UNESCO in 1996 entitled "Report for UNESCO—Trade in Antiquities reducing Destruction and Theft" by Patrick J O'Keefe. It contains a masterly survey of the problems, the points of view of the various interested parties (including the public), and ventures some recommendations. It examines in some detail all the various approaches to cultural heritage, and cautions that a simplistic approach based on wild and inaccurate claims of certain vested interest will not help the preservation of cultural heritage in situ. He also highlights many of the double standards and much of the hypocrisy and inconsistency of approach ventured by these vested interests. We urge the Committee to study this report, and doubt if it does not cover any points of view which will be represented to the Committee by other interested parties. This document represents current UNESCO thinking, and without it the Committee would be deliberating in isolation.

  We believe strongly that coins should be specifically excluded from consideration in relation to UNIDROIT. By their very nature coins are not unique items, were meant to be widely disseminated and were made in very large numbers. In this respect they are quite distinct from antiquities and should be approached, if at all, quite differently. It should be appreciated that ancient and medieval coins are, for the most part, extremely common and worth small sums of money. One should not be blinded by a very few "stars" that have fetched six figure sums to the reality that the overall average value of all coins discovered is certainly nearer to £10 than £100. For UK customs to attempt to embargo coins arriving in this country from source countries would be impractical, and immensely costly in terms of expert advice needed to identify, value and advise, quite apart from any legal expense that may arise. We feel strongly that the British public's and cultural heritage's interests would be served not one jot by the imposition of UNIDROIT on coinage.

  This issue is being looked at with a view, presumably, to preserving cultural heritage in situ, and to deterring the inhabitants of source countries from looting archaeological sites. It is apposite therefore to quote at this juncture from the introduction to the famous study of the Asyut Hoard by Martin Price who was Curator of Greek coins and Deputy Keeper of the Coin Room at the British Museum from 1978-94. Dr Price was a man who keenly appreciated how impossible it is to go against human nature. His total commitment to classical cultural heritage and numismatics in particular is evidenced by his last appointment to head the British School in Athens.

  "Hoards of coins, unlike other antiquities, are almost always found by chance, not by purposeful excavation. The laws of Treasure Trove can only work adequately, if they do not unduly antagonize the coin dealers, and if they provide suitable rewards to the finders for their piece of good fortune. We must emphasize that in this present instance it was only through the international co-operation of dealers, collectors and scholars that more than 870 of the rumoured 900 coins of the Asyut hoard could be recorded after their dispersal by the original finders". (Archaic Greek Coinage—The Asyut Hoard London 1975.)

  People find coins in the ground all over the world on a daily basis. The practice of melting down coins of precious metal has gone on for centuries. When a market exists that will pay more than the bullion price, newly discovered coins find their way onto the market. Were there no market, they would be melted. This would happen, indeed is happening, in countries that apply draconian laws to the possession of coins from the soil. When people find coins by accident or design, they will quite naturally want to turn them into cash—thus the Treasure Act recognises this and enshrines the principle of fair market recompense for coins found in UK soil and declared to the authorities. Until such time as other source countries adopt a similar policy, it is simply naïve and unrealistic to expect the indigenous population to hand over precious metal for no reward—whether high minded academics think they should or not. The solution to illegal excavation can only lie with the source country. Once coins have been removed from the soil, they have no archaeological context and thus no value for cultural heritage—at least, that is what some academics tell us! It follows therefore, that for UK Customs to repatriate coins out of archaeological context would add nothing to the source countries' fund of cultural heritage, and would, as with much ill-thought out legislation, have the opposite effect of that intended.

  It is the collecting of coins that spawns peoples' interest in coinage and history. If they could not collect coins, very few would ever show any interest in the vast collections held in our national museums. Most numismatic study and research on coins is currently carried out in the West (seldom in the source countries), with a degree of expertise and scholarship that should be, and perhaps is, the envy of any source country. Coins are found too frequently and in too great a number for almost any source country to properly record, study and publish them. In an ideal world, everything would be discovered and recorded by archaeologists, but there are not enough of them and we do not discern an imperative on the part of source countries to increase their numbers—quite the reverse.

  The parading of obvious national treasures, and posing the question, "shouldn't we make it easier to get these items back to their rightful owner?" is a dishonest approach to the wholly different situation of whether we recognise and enforce other countries' totalitarian and counter-productive laws regarding export; laws which we do not find acceptable in the United Kingdom. Quite simply, coins are far too common to be considered sufficiently important to regulate under the sledgehammer of UNIDROIT and we urge you to recognise them as a separate category in any deliberations regarding cultural heritage.

March 2000

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2000
Prepared 25 July 2000