World Coins

Ancient coin battle ends in federal courtroom

Ancient Cyprus was once part of the vast-ranging Achaemenid Empire. Cypriot coins are subject to import restrictions when coming into the United States.

Public domain image.

Collectors of ancient coins, as represented by the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild, have lost the latest appeal of import restrictions for certain coins.

The latest ruling was handed down on Aug. 7 in the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. 

The appeal was specific to eight Chinese coins and seven coins from Cyprus, which were part of a package sent in 2009 by Spink & Son to the ACCG in an effort to test — and potentially overturn — import restrictions that had been enacted by the federal government through Customs and Border Protection.


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First restrictions

The first restrictions, affecting Cypriot coins, began in July 2007. Restrictions for import of certain Chinese coins followed in January 2009. 

The U.S. reached Memorandums of Understanding between Cyprus and China, with Customs officials creating lists of which coins were affected by the import restrictions. 

The guild opposed the Cypriot and Chinese MOUs, believing that State Department officials had acted in bad faith in adopting the import restrictions. 

That belief was bolstered by what the guild perceived as failures of government officials to comply with the [Cultural Property Implementation Act]. 

To remedy those perceived failures, the guild sought to have its grievances heard and resolved in the courts. 

“The Guild therefore decided to manufacture litigation by deliberately importing restricted ancient Cypriot and Chinese coins into the United States,” the government asserts. 

To force the issue, the guild admits that it “deliberately” and “purposefully” imported the 15 ancient coins, knowing that they were subject to import restrictions, in seeking to engineer this forfeiture action, according to the U.S. government decision on the appeal. 

“As such, the Guild cannot credibly claim that it has been unconstitutionally deprived of its property. The Guild simply implemented a scheme designed to knowingly contravene, and subsequently challenge, a federal law that it opposed,” the court ruled.

The ACCG used the Cypriot and Chinese Designated Lists as guideposts in deciding which ancient coins were likely to be seized by Customs. The fact that the guild — with the assistance of Spink — correctly identified the coins subject to the import restrictions shows beyond peradventure that importers of ordinary intelligence are able to ascertain the conduct that contravenes federal law.” 

Preventing confiscation

There are three ways to keep imported coins from being confiscated under the law, notes the government. 

The importer can present to Customs and Border Protection a “certificate or other documentation” from the state party that requested the restrictions, certifying that the designated material was exported in compliance with that state party’s laws.

Secondly, the importer can present Customs with “satisfactory evidence” demonstrating that the designated material was exported from the state party at least 10 years before it arrived in the United States.

The third option is for the importer to present “satisfactory evidence” to Customs proving that the designated material was exported from the state party “on or before the date” the material became subject to import restrictions.

If an importer fails to submit any of the documentation specified when designated material enters the United States, Customs officials are directed to “refuse to release the material from customs custody.”

The importer then has 90 days to file with Customs either the required certificate or satisfactory evidence demonstrating that the designated material was lawfully exported from the state party. 

If the importer fails to do so, the designated material is subject to seizure and forfeiture to the United States.

Why import restrictions?

Import restrictions have been put in place to help thwart unauthorized digging and downright looting of archaeological sites and items of significance, but the ACCG has continuously noted that the majority of coins affected by the restrictions (both from China and Cyprus, and other countries like Iraq and Italy, which were not contested in this case) are common and circulated widely, and therefore should not be subject to the restrictions, because the true origin of their find cannot be determined, and that, in modern times, only the location of issue is certain. 

The handling of cultural property in these situations is in stark contrast to how they are handled in the United Kingdom, where the Portable Antiquities Scheme is a government funded enterprise in cooperation with the British Museum to identify hoard finds and contents and offer private rewards for the value of items properly located with archaeological input. 

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