US Coins

Monday Morning Brief for Feb. 24, 2020: Test case end disappoints

Casey Durst, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, director of field operations, Baltimore Field Office, presents seven ancient coins to Cyprus Ambassador Marios Lyssiotis during a ceremony at the Cyprus Embassy in Washington, D.C., Feb. 14, 2020.

Images courtesy of U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Collectors of ancient coins are right to be disappointed and concerned with the resolution of the years-long effort by the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild to test government regulations aimed at preventing the importation of ancient coins from certain countries.

As Jeff Starck reports in his article here, the guild worked with a noted specialist in ancient coins in April 2009 to import seven coins from Cyprus that ACCG said had a market value of approximately $200. 

The guild was testing import restrictions from Cyprus that went into effect July 16, 2007. 

The U.S. government and 20 countries have entered into bilateral agreements to protect those nations’ cultural property, including coins in some cases. According to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, “These bilateral agreements protect cultural property by restricting U.S. import of certain categories of archeological and ethnological material, thus reducing incentive for looting at heritage sites.”

No one should encourage or support looting sites of historical importance. Major new coin hoards should be treated as having potential archeological importance and should be studied by numismatists and historians (as is done in the UK, for example) to determine their significance. 

For coin collectors and dealers, however, the problem is that thousands of ancient coins have been trading in the marketplace since long before the advent of the agreements, most with no specific provenance or documentation that they are legally held by their owner, solely because no record exists of where or when they were originally found. Under current guidelines, it is possible for a coin that has been held since the 19th century to be considered contraband subject to import restrictions.

Coins have served a utilitarian use for thousands of years. Many ancient coins are the equivalent of a random Lincoln cent — anonymous, identical to thousands of similar examples, and of nominal monetary and historical value. Such common pieces should be treated differently than a coin that truly has archeological or historical significance. Unfortunately, commonsense decisions have been lacking on the part of governments, and the coin community now suffers as a result. 

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