World Coins

Monday Morning Brief for Aug. 13, 2018

The United Kingdom’s policy regarding coin hoards allows the finders of the coins to profit, legally, from their sale, while also ensuring that coins of special significance go to the appropriate museum.

Image courtesy of Hansons Historica.

Few support the looting of archaeological treasures. Preserving a nation’s heritage is important and worthy of government sanctions. But where do we draw the line?

As senior editor Jeff Starck reports here, a federal appeals court has ruled against hobby organizations in a case involving federal restrictions on the importation of certain coins. Several nations have called upon the United States to protect their national heritage, aka coins, by restricting their import.

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The hobby’s position, put simply, is that ancient coins were mass-produced objects designed to be used in commerce, and were, often across national borders. For governments to suddenly say that all coins of a certain class deserve the same protection as a unique statue or an original historical document misses that point. 

Peter Tompa, an attorney and a board member of the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild, in a 2016 Guest Commentary in Coin World, explained a core principle behind efforts to restrict importation of certain coins. To help explain, he first noted several incidents involving certain artifacts then in the news.

“The term ‘undocumented’ is the common thread in all these stories,” Tompa wrote. “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.”

Tompa added, “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.”

Ancient coin hoards big and small are found regularly, and yes, they are sometimes are looted and sold into the market. Nations want to stop that, which is reasonable. If a hoard site is protected from looting to allow archaeologists time to recover materials in situ to better understand the past.

Sometimes the coins that are recovered from such sites are rare and historically important; they may deserve to be preserved for all to enjoy in museums. Many coins, however, are common, and would be of little use sitting locked away in museum coin cabinets. 

Collectors and dealers feel as though the very concept of collecting is being targeted by the archaeological field. If we accept the assumption that any historic object is stolen unless its provenance can be proven, that would prove to be a serious barrier to collecting.

A middle ground exists, however — one that protects historic sites from being looted while at the same time protecting the rights of those stumble over the sites and make amazing discoveries, and one that opens the door at least partially in permitting some of the coins to go to collectors.

The United Kingdom regulates the dispersal of buried coin finds but makes provisions for financial benefits to go to those who find the coins and to the owners of the lands on which coins are found. Finders turn in the coins and experts arrive at a value. Museums are afforded a chance to buy any coins of special importance, with the money then shared with the various parties; coins of lesser historic importance can be sold into the collector market, with the money also going to the finders and landowners. It’s a win-win situation: Coins of national significance go into museums, common coins can enter the market, and their finders are rewarded. 

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