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 regulations.gov 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.