According to Greek legend, the ship of Theseus that had once carried sacrifices to the Minotaur sat unused in a harbor for centuries. As the ship fell into disrepair, bits of it were replaced; after a time, no original wood of the ship was left, yet there was the boat sitting in the harbor. So, was it still Theseus’ ship or not?
Coin collecting may face a similar question soon. More and more laws are being passed restricting or prohibiting the sale of any antiquities. More people believe we are headed for a cashless economy, with few if any new coins minted. Old coins are easily degraded or devalued by accident or natural disaster. Talk of virtual coin shows and even digital collecting is on the rise. Should that leave us grim about the future of coin collecting as a hobby?
Absolutely not! Collecting has gone through many changes, and it should come as no surprise that the future will bring more. Coin collecting has changed significantly over the years, and it is still the most-practiced pastime around the world. Change is not the thing to be feared.
Collecting in the Past
Humans have always built collections. We like to hold onto the things that interest us. Many early museums were just that: collections of things that an individual or community (such as a local church or monastery) found interesting: ostrich eggs, large fossil bones, goods from distant lands. For centuries, these were displayed with only legends about the origin of the items, or someone’s best guess as to what the mystery object might be.
Over time, collections became an important part of high society. The very wealthy would have entire rooms dedicated to collections of oddities, sometimes open to other high-society members to peruse. The first public museums grew out of the circuses, which often needed somewhere to take over their exhibits of oddities after the performers had ceased to tour. (The Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles aims to recreate this era of museums, and is worth a visit when you’re in the area.) For the first time in centuries, ordinary people were allowed to view these items, and the scientific mindset brought to bear on the collections. Museums were a way of letting the public have access to unique and educational items, while still preserving them for future generations.
It is this impulse, to share what we have with others and yet ensure that it remains for future generations, that is at the heart of coin collecting. We want to preserve the most interesting and valuable coins of the past so that future generations may enjoy them, while still being able to appreciate them for ourselves rather than simply locking them up in a vault.
A New Age of Historical Preservation
One of the great things that modern technology has brought us is an enhanced ability to understand and preserve the remnants of our past. We know how to conduct archaeology without destroying history in the process. We prosecute looting and grave robbing; salvages at sea are subject to strict rules to ensure that the treasures they bring up are properly cared for and documented.
In the last few decades, there have been more and more calls for ancient goods to be returned to their lands of origin, as part of the country’s cultural heritage. A recent German proposal would severely limit the sale or trade of antiquities, including coins. Other countries can be expected to follow suit. This will no doubt be beneficial to the countries that have routinely had their artifacts stolen or appropriated, but it does put a bind on those who collect coins and other antiquities.
Much of museum and collection technology has come about as we strive to take better care of the things of the past. The new laws regarding antiquities have the same end. We are, at the end of the day, all on the same team.
New Ways of Collecting
The revolution in digital imaging has already changed how coins are bought, sold, and traded online. It is simple for any beginner to take a decent picture of a coin with their smartphone or camera. Emerging technologies could result in new ways of collecting at least some coins: 3D printing and virtual reality may hold particular interest. As printing technology gets more and more refined, specific coins could be recreated in similar or identical materials; it would not have the history of an original coin, but would also allow more original coins to be properly preserved in museums or other collections while still allowing collectors to own something that reflects a particular history.
Virtual/augmented reality is also beginning to take off as a means of collecting. The new “Pokemon Go” game allows users to travel to specific real-world locations and use augmented reality to see and collect digital creatures from those spaces. The game has been much-anticipated; fans are eager to combine their digital and offline worlds. Will this technology change how coins are traded and displayed? Will coin shows and other venues make use of it?
Clearly, no one knows the shape of the future for coin collecting. We don’t have a crystal ball to see how things will change. What we do know is that the knowledge and passion of collectors is a steady force over millennia, and coin collecting will not be defeated by yet another change in technology.