World Coins

Monday Morning Brief for March 1, 2021: Mixed feelings on seizure

Some of the confiscated Greek Hellenistic and early Islamic coins that were seized in 2017 and transferred recently to the University of Washington Libraries Special Collections.

Original image courtesy of Homeland Security Investigations.

The news article here about the transfer of confiscated ancient coins to a Washington university will probably be received with mixed feelings in the numismatic community.

Agents of the Customs and Border Patrol in 2017 seized 51 Greek Hellenistic and early Islamic coins from an individual who officials said could not provide documentation of ownership. Regulations are in place in the United States to prohibit the importation of ancient coins from various regions of the world, supposedly to deter the illegal looting of coins at archaeological sites. Some in the numismatic community maintain that such restrictions are part of a broader effort by academicians, museum curators and others to prohibit the private ownership of certain coins.

Foreign governments have been fairly successful in persuading the U.S. government to enact those restrictions. Most recently, in January 2021, U.S. and Turkish officials signed a memorandum of understanding governing the importation of broad classes of cultural and historical artifacts dating from 1,200,000 B.C. to A.D. 1770, including objects composed of metal. Such objects could only be exported with a license from the government of Turkey.

Peter Tompa, who has worked tirelessly at fighting such restrictions on behalf of the numismatic community, wrote in January, “The implementing regulations have not yet been announced but no doubt coins will be included.  It is also likely that artifacts of displaced Greek, Jewish and Armenian populations will be included.”

The looting of archaeological sites needs to be discouraged. Indeed, U.S. laws prohibit such acts on American soil at places like Civil War battlefields. However, common ground needs to be reached between the various parties, protecting important historical sites while not placing onerous restrictions on legitimate sellers and buyers of ancient coins. A lot of work remains to reach that goal.

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