Balancing cultural property protection and private collecting

Memorandums of understanding between the United States and other nations to protect cultural property serve a noble purpose. The broad concept behind these MOUs is perhaps even more relevant today, as we’ve seen certain political groups attempt to wipe out the material history of entire cultures.

However, for an MOU to be effective, it also needs to be practical and enforceable. The possibility of the extension of the MOU between the United States and Italy that includes Roman Imperial coins is very real, and could have a wide negative impact on the market for ancient coins in the United States.

Blanket import restrictions on coins aren’t necessarily practical as ancient coins enjoyed wide circulation well beyond their place of creation. This makes it often impossible to determine whether a particular coin was discovered within Italy and is, thus, subject to the export control of Italy. Further, it’s challenging to prove a given coin was illegally excavated from a specific site.

Further, these MOUs create an uneven playing field between collectors in the United States and those elsewhere, including Italy, who are not hampered by these restrictions.

While the Cultural Property Advisory Committee once excluded coins, coins are now included in MOUs between the United States and Cyprus, China, Italy, Greece and Bulgaria.

As attorney Peter Tompa wrote in his blog, “It has never made sense to place restrictions on ancient coins, particularly when there is large, open and legal internal market for the exact same sort of coins within Italy itself.”

Tompa adds that the imposition of an MOU “must also be consistent with the general interest of the international community in the interchange of cultural property among nations for scientific, cultural, and educational purposes.” Given that much numismatic scholarship is the result of private collectors, rather than museums or other cultural institutions, is it in the best interest to put in place broad restrictions that limit the collecting of these coins?

Archaeologist Paul Legutko wrote in the public comments on the proposed MOU: “The academic field of classical archaeology would not exist today without the centuries of collecting that have stocked American museums and provided material for countless doctoral dissertations. It is hypocritical for academics to condemn the private ownership of antiquities, without which they would have neither their study material nor so many students in their classrooms.”

Roman coins were more than a method of transferring value; they also communicated ideas and the power of Rome. Legutko observed, “The Romans who struck these coins would have welcomed the idea that these coins would travel thousands of miles to be studied and appreciated.”

There are perhaps more effective ways to protect cultural property than implementing MOUs that include wide categories of objects that are too broad for practical enforcement.