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German art police target Munich show in early March

This article comes from our April 17, 2017, weekly issue of Coin World. Want to get all of our content, including special magazine exclusives?  Subscribe today!

The cultural property battle in Germany ratcheted up a notch on March 4 when government agents visited the Numismata show in Munich and arrested one dealer and four collectors.

The Kunstfahnder (“art investigators”) of the Bavarian State Criminal Police arrested five people during and outside the show in the first major public effort at enforcement of a relatively new law governing illegal trafficking of cultural goods.

A total of 30 police officers and officials were engaged in the sweep, according to a press release from the local police authority. A person identified only as a cultural heritage expert from the Landeskriminalamt, the Hessian police, was also on hand. 

Four collectors, a 49-year-old man from Bulgaria and three Serbian nationals between the ages of 30 and 47, were detained outside the show, the report said, because they could not provide evidence of the provenance of their ancient coins. Police estimate that the coins were worth €1,600 (about $1,710 U.S.). The coins were seized but the men were released, pending charges.

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Hubert Lanz, who operates Numismatik Lanz, an auction house and coin dealership with a strong online presence, told Coin World that police prepared for the Munich arrests. 

The collectors from the Balkans had a few Roman denarii of minor value, and the police “inflated the prices for the three pieces they had on them,” he said.

The main target of the police action in Munich was an Afghani citizen from Bronshoj (near Copenhagen), Denmark, who was selling a variety of coins and antiques, such as spear points and decorative items.

The enforcers quickly assessed the items, noting that most of the coins were from Iran, Afghanistan and India. 

“Afghanistan is one of the countries that is heavily looted in the chaos of war for decades,” according to a translation of the report from the German police.

The dealer could not provide documents proving the origin of the approximately 6,000 coins and about 1,000 other objects or their legal import to Germany, according to the police. 

The items were worth more than €50,000 ($53,438 U.S.), according to the report.

Lanz told Coin World that his assistant was at the arrested dealer’s table when the police arrived. 

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“He had no documents with him, but he also had no important coins at his table,” said Lanz. “The bronze items and many of the coins were probably fake and are of minor value. [The dealer] is now still under arrest. ... I understood that [he] was calm and supportive at this investigation, but had no idea that he had broken any law, because Europe is supposed to be a free trading zone at least for cultural items of not scientific value [referring to the Treaty of Lisbon].”

It is unclear whether the dealer has been released as of press time March 31. 

Lanz said this is only the first of such police actions. 

“I have heard [March 29] the police in Wiesbaden confiscated a collection of sigloi of the Achemenides from an Iranian collector, who was buying them since at least 10 years on Ebay, without any prior warning,” said Lanz. “As you know, that most of the Persian sigloi do not originate from Iran, they can come from anywhere in the east and circulated, many with banker’s marks.”

A report in Germany’s Numismatisches Nachrichtenblatt, or “Numismatic News Gazette,” confirmed details provided by police and Lanz.

The new law went into effect in 2016 and requires at least 20 years’ of provenance for objects of cultural importance, and requires an export license for objects that are more than 70 years old and worth more than €300,000 ($320,566 U.S.).

Peter Tompa, a U.S.-based collector and lawyer said that the arrests for violating the documentation requirements are “indeed a troubling development. As you know, most ancient coins are not ‘documented’ to the extent the bureaucracy requires.”

Coin World will report more information as it is confirmed. 

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