Sunday, March 30, 2014

Some things never seem to change

James Taylor Lewis (1819-1904) was born in Clarendon, New York and moved to Dodge County, Wisconsin in 1845.  As a young lawyer, he served as District Attorney and County Judge before entering state politics.  During a productive and popular political career, Lewis served in the Wisconsin State Assembly, in the State Senate, as Lieutenant Governor, Secretary of State, and as Wisconsin's ninth Governor at the end of the Civil War.  On September 23, 1857, he addressed the members of the Columbia County Agricultural Society at Wyocena, Wisconsin during their Annual Fair.  Before today, I had never heard of Governor Lewis even though I was born and raised in Wisconsin not far from his home.  The Wyocena text came to me completely by accident.  Many years ago, while living in Lodi, Wisconsin, I purchased a nondescript packet of old papers at a local garage sale.  They were mainly farming documents and financial records of a farmer in the Wyocena area—curiosities, but not very compelling.  The packet sat untouched for some 30 years until I happened upon it this afternoon.

Amidst the papers, I came across a small booklet titled "Proceedings of the Columbia County Agricultural Society for 1857".  Along with a few pages of general information about the status of agriculture in the county was included the text of the address by James Lewis on that day in September.  The speaker opened with a general discourse about the value of agriculture to health and welfare and the value of labor to the "happiness of the human race".  How do we assure health and happiness?  Here are his words from more than 150 years ago:

"We answer that labor, exercise, is one of the most important avenues to both.  And here I shall meet some of the errors of the present day, and some too that are doing more harm, doing more to sap the foundations of society, to destroy the happiness of the race than perhaps all others combined.   I refer to the opinion thas seems to obtain at the present day, more particularly in our large towns and among the younger portion of the community, that happiness lies in ease and idleness and that labor is dishonorable.  Hence so many throng our cities and towns seeking to live without labor.  Hence so many thieves and robbers.  Hence so much dishonesty and so many pests to society.  Hence the necessity of so many poor houses and prisons......."  

At this point, taking a page from Horatio Alger, Lewis expounded at some length upon the nature of all life on earth, that it prospers in motion and dies in stagnation.  Getting back to humans, he said,

"Go, watch the course of that young man who has no useful employment for either his body or his mind; see him saunter along through life with no end or aim, no point in view, but ready at any moment to turn aside from the path of rectitude.... His mind is uninformed, hence from ignorance he falls into the misfortunes which necessarily befall ignorance and folly.  

"If you wish your children to be wise and happy, train them to habits of industry.... Place before them some useful employment and give them such inducements as will make their task a pleasant and a joyous one, and you are certain to promote virtue."

The world has changed in many ways since 1857, but the fundamental Puritan ethic that molded people like James Taylor Lewis is still regarded by many as a pathway to success.  The labor-intensive family farm of the 19th century is no longer the backbone of American industry, but the value of a strong work ethic and a solid basic education is as important today as it was back then.  Without it, society marches backward.

Monday, March 24, 2014

CGB founder Michel Prieur RIP

Michel Prieur, founder and president of Compagnie Générale de Bourse (CGB) passed away last week in Paris leaving behind a legacy of important contributions to numismatics.  His breadth of knowledge was most impressive and his passion for the hobby and trade was unsurpassed.  One of Michel's most memorable contributions to ancient numismatics was publication of the authoritative treatise on Syro-Phoenician tetradrachms, A Type Corpus of the Syro-Phoenician Tetradrachms and their Fractions from 57 BC to AD 258, which he wrote with Karin Prieur in 2000.  It is the undisputed standard reference to this difficult field. He contributed widely to the entire coin collecting world through his online archives, blogs, publication of exceptional catalogues and the Bulletin Numismatique.  He was recognized internationally as an authority on forgery of coins and paper money.  A large part of the success that CGB has enjoyed may be credited to Michel's development of a superb staff that will carry on in his name for many years to come.

Michel and CGB have been dedicated supporters of and contributors to the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild with every member of their numismatic staff being enrolled as an ACCG member.  The firm was a strong supporter of The Celator from its earliest days.  He will be sadly missed and warmly remembered.

Friday, February 07, 2014

Bootleggers and Baptists

Living in rural southwestern Missouri (God's Country) we happen to be members of the Missouri Farm Bureau.  This organization produces a quarterly membership publication called "Show Me".  An editorial by MFB president Blake Hurst in the Winter 2014 issue caught my eye and struck a chord that I feel is worth sharing.  His "Bootleggers and Baptists" is sub-titled "another way to think about government regulations".   The term itself is attributable to regulatory economist Bruce Yandle who observed that regulations are supported by two groups.  Those who support the proposed purpose and those who benefit from undermining the proposed purpose.  The reference is to the simple fact that historically Baptist groups have supported regulations that restricted the sale of alcohol on Sundays and these regulations were also advocated by Bootleggers, who profited from the lack of legal competition on that day of the week.  Some might call it a symbiotic relationship.  Others view the result as "suboptimal legislation" where "broader society would be better off either with no legislation or different legislation"

Mr. Hurst was leading into a discussion about the deluge of regulation facing the agriculture industry.  In particular, he mentions how provisions of the new Food Safety Modernization Act tend to harm small firms because the cost of compliance is high.  This favors larger firms, he explains.  The annual cost of new regulations is about five times the cost of Clinton/Bush era regulations.  This burden is felt more intensely by small firms and therefore is advantageous to and supported by larger firms.  It's a case where two potential adversaries, public safety activists and big business, are like the Baptists and Bootleggers.

It didn't take much deliberation to recognize some parallels in cultural property regulation.  If Preservationists and Archaeologists can be likened in a philosophical way to Baptists, then Nationalistic States who benefit from total state control and ownership of cultural property are perhaps the equivalent of Bootleggers.  The coalition and resulting influence on regulation favors institutional controls rather than the interests of the broader public.   This hits close to home for private collectors of ancient coins when the "Baptists and Bootleggers" call for verifiable provenance on every coin sold before it can transit national borders.  Large firms can bear the financial burden of onerous documentation and registration far more easily than small firms and expensive coins can more easily justify the expense than common inexpensive coins.  What this leads to is an advantage for certain types of firms and certain types of customers—generally to the disadvantage of the average citizen or small "Mom and Pop" business.    As diverse as agriculture and ancient coin collecting seem to be, the dynamics of governance and bureaucracy have similar effects on both.

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Reaching too far

The saga of Gantcho Zagorski brings to mind the baleful Kingston Trio song "Tom Dooley" where the accused accepted punishment in a faulted prosecution to avoid further anguish and heartache.  The parallels are not exactly relevant, and Dula or "Dooley" paid a stiffer price, but the facts do have that sort of "ring" to them.  Though guilty by admission, the whole Zagorski episode has a distasteful undertone.  Government interest in the eBay transactions of Zagorski, as Diana Coins and Pagane Coins, apparently began sometime in 2008 or earlier—presumably triggered by large monetary transfers from Zagorski to Bulgaria.  A shipment of coins to Zagorski was detained in March of 2009 and a litany of government actions followed.  Unless there is more to come, the culmination of these events was the recent plea bargain on a related Income Tax charge.  In that action, the government is moving for the forfeiture of some $60,000 in assets.  The issue, unsavory as it is, would raise few eyebrows if that were all there were to it—a standard case of Tax Evasion like thousands of others investigated each year.

The undertone, and potentially far more significant aspect, is the reason that Zagorski's business drew the interest of ICE investigators in the first place.  It appears this was initially a question of whether ancient coins sold by Zagorski on eBay were illegally exported from Bulgaria.  Everyone who followed the case treated it as a cultural property issue—not a tax issue.  Keeping in mind that the United States did not at that time have import restrictions on coins from Bulgaria, the question was whether Zagorski had violated Bulgarian law and thereby imported property considered by the Bulgarian government to be stolen.  That would, in some cases, be a violation of U.S. law.   After some five years of intense investigation, the government has apparently settled for an income tax indictment and plea bargain.  This raises some disturbing questions.

Was the expense and dedication of resources for this action warranted?  The IRS would have cut their losses much sooner.  There obviously was another agenda.  In an age where violent crime is rampant; drug abuse soars; illegal immigration is a national scourge; federal budgets for critical services are being cut; law enforcement agencies at every level are overtaxed and underfunded; should American taxpayers compensate for failed law enforcement in foreign lands?  What could the cost/benefit ratio possibly be?  Is the Zagorski case a sign of the times and a harbinger of more to come?  Conceptually, worldwide cooperation in law enforcement has merit, but the use of scarce U.S. resources to enforce controversial and often obscure foreign patrimony laws on mundane utilitarian objects reaches much too far.  There is also a danger that essential and laudable enforcement of law could be perverted into an ideological club advancing the special interests of cultural property nationalists.  That, to all Americans, should be a wakeup call.  When nationalist control of minutiae becomes commonplace the rights of individuals rapidly disappear.

Sunday, February 02, 2014

The Monuments Men

Unlike the ridiculous antics of Indiana Jones, the latest Hollywood foray into the cultural property arena has some genuine merit even if it is still, after all, entertainment.  The Monuments Men is a belated tribute to genuine preservationists who were tremendously successful and are certainly deserving of this day in the Sun.  Sadly, it will enbolden a rash of modern day nationalist thieves eager to "steal" the past by clamoring for strict controls and "stewardship" over everything older than their shoe laces—all in the name of "saving" the past.  What was conceived in 1970 through a laudable concern over genuine cultural monuments has devolved in recent years into a fanaticism over trivia and a lust for power. 

Since the setting of this movie is WWII, it might be worth remembering that not everything treated as "Cultural Property" by UNESCO and nationalist bureaucracies was looted art.   Many of the objects of war now touted as "precious" in the eyes of cultural property nationalists were intentionally scrapped by the authorities who controlled them 70 or more years ago.  An unfathomable tonnage of aircraft, vehicles, weapons, documents, and all that multiple armies needed to subsist, was destroyed or abandoned at the end of every war in modern times.  Much of it still lies where it was buried or pushed into the sea.  Yet, many of these very objects today risk being made untouchable to the general population through administrative regulations or even criminal statutes.  Nevermind that they were originally bought and paid for by John Q. Public. 

Each year, the list of verboten objects grows—extending even to utilitarian objects like coins.  This sequestering of cultural property, which includes virtually everything ever made by mankind, is promoted by self-appointed stewards as a necessary action to preserve the past.  In some theaters, that act may gain applause but it is really a modern day parallel to the very concern that gave birth to the Monuments Men of WWII.  Absolute control leads to absolute tyranny.  It did then and it does now.  Anyone who would liken today's cultural property power grab to the heroic actions portrayed in The Monuments Men might do well to remember the election debates of 1988.  Vice-Presidential candidate Dan Quayle had compared his prior experience to that of John F. Kennedy.  In a rare moment of absolute clarity,  his opponent Lloyd Bentsen responded "Senator, you are no Jack Kennedy". 

Thursday, January 30, 2014

When the Dragon Wore the Crown - Book Review

Collectors and students of ancient coinage can hardly escape visual and epigraphical connections to mythology and astrology that constantly delight the eye and challenge the mind.  Aside from political propaganda and the occasional appeal to social graces, no other subject appears so consistently on coins of antiquity. One might wonder why that is, since the concepts that these numismatic images represent are often obscure to us even in an age of universal education and mass communication.  Could the man or woman on the street in antiquity have understood those often subliminal messages?  We have to wonder.  But, endure they did and we see in daily life a stunning panorama of inherited ancient images that are as ingrained in us as we envision these images must have been for the bulk of our ancestors.  It is only in the thoughtful interpretation of those images that we begin to see the direct correlation between cosmological order and humanity's long journey through time.

When the Dragon Wore the Crown
, by professional astrologer Don Cerow, presents an intriguing view of astrological subjects within a broad context of time and human awareness.  Due to precessional shift, explains Cerow, the stars drift very slowly across the heavens—so slowly that in one human life they move only about one degree.  But over several millennia they shift a considerable amount and the reaction of man to specific stars and constellations changes accordingly.  For example, Cerow uses a charting of precessional shift to observe the "flight" of the constellation Draco (the dragon).  In encyclopedic detail, he describes the correlation of myth and astrology within ancient cultures around the globe.

In the field of Turkoman figural bronze coins, one of the most impressive types, in my view, is from the realm of 12th-century AD ruler 'Imad al-Din Abu Bakr.  This Artuqid prince of Khartpert, in the historic land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, issued an impressive coin bearing the personification of a constellation.  The type is generally regarded as a celestial image of Serpentarius bearing Serpens (Draco and Serpens often being confused).  Serpens figures prominently in Greek mythology, which may seem odd as the subject for an Islamic coin.  Surprisingly, the constellation is a Christian iconographic symbol as well.  In the Pelasgian creation myth, Ophion (Serpens) is the first creature created by Eurynome, the goddess of all things.  Ophion girdled the universe, and in the heavens this constellation is entwined about the North Star.  Ophiuchus (Serpentarius) is the celestial bearer of the Serpent.  This 12th-century image has not only Greek influence, but Babylonian origins in the struggle between Marduk and Tiamat—the struggle of Good with Evil.

 S/S-21, 'Imad al-Din Abu Bakr, Khartpert (CNG photo)

Understanding the imagery and cultural significance of astrological subjects is certainly made easier by this book.  Although When the Dragon Wore the Crown is not about coins, per se, it will be a delight for anyone interested in the ancient world and ancient myth.  Filled with stunning color illustrations, this 200+ page treatise puts astrology into a perspective that few authors have managed to do.  It is conveniently organized in chapter forms that are more or less independent and can be read as time or need exists.  The book is available at in paperback and Kindle editions and at other booksellers nationwide.

Monday, December 30, 2013


A recent interview by Greg Laptevsky of

Click on image or link above for full interview