Sunday, July 15, 2007

Black Day for Numismatics: Import Restrictions on Cypriot Coins

On Friday July 13th 2007, a day which will live in infamy, the State Department imposed restrictions on importation of ancient coins "of Cypriot types" issued before 330 a.d.

This unprecedented action to include ancient coins in extending existing import restrictions was issued without stating justification or reasons. The State Department reversed its long standing prior position exempting coins from such restrictions, even though all factual and practical reasons justifying the exemption remain unchanged.

The CPIA statute implementing the 1970 UNESCO Convention in US law authorizes imposition of import restrictions only upon artifacts “found in the ground” of a specific country. No statutory authority exists for basing such restrictions on where an artifact was made. In announcing this decision, the State Department accepted the dubious premise that coins from Cypriot mints are “only found in the ground” of the modern nation state of Cyprus—despite convincing factual evidence to the contrary.

The CPIA statute requires that import restrictions on cultural objects shall first be considered and reviewed by a Cultural Property Advisory Committee, whose eleven members serve three-year terms, convening when a request is received from a country asking for U.S. assistance under Article 9 of the 1970 UNESCO Convention. The Committee reviews these requests, then recommends a course of action to the State Department. Representation is stipulated by law: two members represent interests of museums; three are expert in archaeology, anthropology, ethnology, or related fields; three are expert in the international sale of cultural property; and three represent interests of the general public.

During CPAC review of extending the 2002 agreement with Cyprus, the Republic of Cyprus made a last minute request to impose additional restrictions on ancient coins after the period allowed for public comment on the extension had closed. The way in which this was presented suggested that it had been worked out in collaboration with the AIA and other “preservationist” activists. Introducing this controversial change at the last possible minute, after public comments had closed, appeared to be a tactic calculated to prevent the numismatic community from receiving advance notice or having a fair opportunity to oppose it -- a “sneak attack” by enemies of coin collecting.

That provoked a flood of complaints, after which the State Department allowed a ten day window for public comment. An unprecedented volume of comments opposing inclusion of coins resulted, despite the brevity of the period allowed. This overwhelming evidence of public concern and outrage, apparently, meant little to the State Department.

Concerns about “due process” were communicated to the State Department’s Inspector General’s office, with documentation detailing the secretive manner in which the CPAC and State Department staff conducted this review. The numismatic community requested an investigation to address concerns felt by many experts, that State Department staff and some CPAC members were ideologically aligned with the anticollecting archaeology lobby, and were not carrying out the CPAC review process in an even handed manner that was fair to the interests of the collecting community. The IG declined jurisdiction, referring the issue back to the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, the same State Department organization overseeing imposition of import restrictions. The perfunctory, meaningless response eventually received shows a complete lack of respect or consideration for valid concerns of the numismatic community.

These import restrictions give US Customs officers broad discretion to detain any coin that “looks Cypriot.” Detained coins will be sent to a bonded warehouse to be held at the risk and expense of the importer (which could be financially onerous even if the coins are recovered), until satisfactory documentation or evidence is filed with the Customs officer. The importer is required to prove that the coin was outside of Cyprus before July 13, 2007, and if this is not done within 90 days the coins will be subject to seizure.

The absence of acceptable documentation or provenance for most coins in the numismatic trade creates a real danger that many coins which have not been in Cyprus since ancient times will be seized and sent to Cyprus. There is also significant concern about whether Customs inspectors can distinguish coins struck at Cypriot mints from other ancient coins, when examining shipments that may include thousands of coins.

The 1995 UNIDROIT Convention addressing restitution of cultural property defines a wide range of objects over 100 years old, including coins, stamps, books, jewelry, pottery, photographs, glassware and many other common things, to be cultural property. Major “collecting” countries have refused to accede to this Convention, because it is so broadly written and places an undue burden of enforcement on importing States such as the USA and Western European nations.. The goal of many influential proponents, such as archaeologists Dr. Ricardo Elia and Lord Renfrew, is to ban private ownership of all unprovenanced antiquities – and archaeologists almost never release provenanced antiquities for sale to collectors.

Since the UNIDROIT Convention is not being accepted, the archaeology lobby, members of academia sympathetic to their goals and other anticollecting “preservationists” now seek to achieve their objectives through stealth tactics, by promoting legislation and regulations to implement import restrictions. A number of such restrictions have been imposed, but until now none have included coins.

Manipulating the CPIA statute (which addresses pillaging of archaeological sites) to advance narrow interests of the archaeology lobby and other anticollecting “preservationists” is an abuse contrary to the intent of this statute. No substantive evidence has ever been presented that ancient coins are actively being pillaged in places where the looting that motivated the statute occurs, or that detectorists prospecting for coin treasures in out of the way places cause any significant damage to archaeological sites. There is abundant evidence to indicate that they do not.

These ideologically motivated, unjustified import restrictions threaten to destroy the traditional freedom Americans have always enjoyed, to collect, appreciate and study historical coins. That innocent, socially beneficial activity, has (ironically) significantly benefited archaeology in addition to contributing much to our knowledge of history.

In thus placing narrow ideological interests of the archaeology lobby, allied academics and foreign states above time honored rights of American citizens, officials of the State Department have raised a question as to whether their goal is really to serve the best interests of the American people. That is something which ought to concern everyone because other, even more important rights and freedoms are at stake.


Blogger Unknown said...

Good post David. A story on the subject from Krause Publications' World Coin News can be found here:

Great blog, congrats! If you're interested in exchanging reciprocal links with NumisMaster (, please email me at

Scott Tappa

8:33 AM  

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