Collectors’ voices need to be heard by Sept. 30 on access to ancient coins

Certain coins of Cyprus could fall under guidelines restricting collector access
By , Special to Coin World
Published : 09/20/16
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Peter Tompa is an attorney and a board member of the Cultural Policy Research Institute and the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild.

On July 14, 2016, the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild filed a motion for summary judgment in a forfeiture case that relates to undocumented ancient coins from Cyprus and China. On Aug. 8, 2016, the U.S. State Department announced a public comment period for the proposed renewal of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the Republic of Cyprus that authorizes import restrictions on undocumented Cypriot coins. That same week, the Cyprus Mail reported that the mayor of Paphos, Cyprus, accused museum workers of stealing and selling artifacts. However, the Cypriot antiquities authority that runs the museum has denied the thefts. Instead, its spokesperson says the artifacts are not missing, but merely “undocumented” due to large backlog in museum storage. 

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The term “undocumented” is the common thread in all these stories. To archaeologists who advocate on behalf of the countries in which they excavate, the term “undocumented” has taken on a sinister connotation, i.e., artifacts without provable collection histories back before 1970 — the date of the UNESCO Convention — that “must be stolen” from archaeological sites. 

To the U.S. government, the term has a related connotation. Artifacts that cannot be traced to back before an MOU is entered with another UNESCO state party are deemed looted and are hence subject to detention, seizure, forfeiture, and repatriation. However, as the plea of Paphos museum workers demonstrates, “undocumented” does not necessarily mean “stolen.” Rather, it’s quite possible that an artifact long out of the ground lacks proper documentation either because no one thought it important enough to prepare at the time or because any paperwork that once existed was subsequently lost or destroyed. 

All this takes us back to the Cyprus MOU renewal request and the ACCG’s motion for summary judgment. For some 25 years after the Convention on Cultural Property Implementation act went into effect, there were no import restrictions on coins. This was no surprise; ancient coins first circulated widely as currency and then as collectibles making it hard to tie them to any one modern nation state. Indeed, when queried specifically about the issue, Mark Feldman, a top State Department lawyer, stated on the record to Congress that “it would be hard … to imagine a case” where coins would be restricted. However, in 2007, when a Cypriot MOU came up for renewal, behind-the-scenes lobbying by well-connected archaeological activists won the day. As a result, according to Jay Kislak, CPAC’s chairman at the time, the State Department rejected his committee’s recommendations against import restrictions on coins and then went on to mis­lead the public and Congress about it. Based on that “precedent,” the State Department next imposed import restrictions on certain coin types from Iraq (2008), China (2009), Italy (2011), Greece (2011), Bulgaria (2014), and Syria (2016). 

ACCG decided not to accept the fait accompli. So, it imported undocumented ancient coins to test the regulations in court, but the judiciary instead decided that the matter was a political question outside its competence. Now, seven years later, the ACCG is still fighting a related forfeiture case involving the coins it imported for “standing” purposes. In that case, the issue of “undocumented” coins — which predominate in the market — has once again come up. The ACCG has argued that even assuming the applicable import regulations are valid, the government must still show that the coins were “first discovered within” and “subject to the export control” of either Cyprus or China before they can be forfeited. The case remains ongoing before a federal court in Baltimore. 

Meanwhile, the ACCG needs your help. Please express concerns about the Cypriot MOU and import restrictions. Why? Because they have severely limited the availability of restricted types here even though such coins remain legally available for sale overseas. And while certain Greek, Roman Republican, Roman Provincial and Chinese coin types have been restricted, other popular Roman Imperial and Byzantine issues found in Bulgaria, Greece, and Italy have remained off the “designated lists” until now and hence remain available to be imported in quantity. To comment on the website, go here. Comments are due on or before Sept. 30, 2016. Silence will only be taken as acquiescence by those who advocate for further restrictions. 

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