Sunday, November 18, 2007

Another Watergate?

The struggle to preserve your right to collect ancient coins began almost the day Classical Coins opened. It became apparent that coin collecting was menaced by recent developments in cultural property law, so I founded Unidroit-L, an Internet discussion list focusing on that topic. Shortly thereafter I joined the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild, where I presently chair the International Affairs Committee and am a member of the Board of Directors.

The United States is a signatory to the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Importation and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. The UNESCO Convention was then, and remains, highly controversial because its definitions of "cultural property" are so broad as to include common items such as coins, printed books and even postage stamps. This excessive scope was justly criticized as including virtually everything made by the hand of man that is more than 100 years old. Strong objections were raised against changing US traditions of individual rights and free trade, in what was assailed as a strategy to draw the US into enforcing export control laws of other nations. In 1984 Congress passed the Cultural Property Implementation Act (CPIA) implementing this Convention into US law.

Amid much concern and trepidation, Congress pondered how this could be done in a manner fair to all. The solution followed American traditions that responsible decision making required that a broad cross section of the public should be involved. A Cultural Property Advisory Committee was established to advise the President, or those to whom he delegated his authority, regarding requests from other nations to restrict importation of cultural property. Impartiality and fairness were to be ensured by specifying broad, inclusive membership for this Committee, and placing it under management of the State Department. For the first ten years, this system worked as planned and responsible, impartial decisions were made.

Meanwhile the conservation lobby, frustrated by rejection of the 1995 Unidroit Convention (whose extreme demands prevented its adoption by any major collecting nation), sought alternative means to achieve their goals, and found a promising opportunity in the workings of the State Department. Congress had assumed that the State Department could be trusted to be fair and impartial in administering the CPIA, thus no specific safeguards or oversight were provided to ensure this. State Department staff had wide discretion in administration of the CPIA and the Cultural Property Advisory Committee. If the support of these officials could be gained, the conservation lobby could pursue its objective of restricting and eventually banning private collecting through unpublicized administrative decisions. This proved to be a successful strategy, as the events of the next ten years (chronicled here in previous entries) have demonstrated.

Matters came to a head on Friday July 13th 2007, when the State Department suddenly imposed restrictions on importation of ancient coins "of Cypriot types" issued before 330 a.d. This unprecedented action, which reversed a long standing policy exempting coins from such restrictions, was taken without stating justification or reasons even though all factual and practical reasons justifying the exemption remain unchanged. All attempts, including inquiries from Senators and Congressmen, to get an explanation from the State Department as to how and why this decision was made have failed.

On November 15, 2007 the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild, the International Association of Professional Numismatists and the Professional Numismatists Guild jointly filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit against the State Department. This seeks to compel disclosure of information relating to requests from Cyprus, China and Italy because, in each case, apparent irregularities in the way these requests were received and managed had caused significant concerns. Further details can be found here.

Something is seriously wrong with our Government, when respectable, law abiding citizens are left with no alternative but to sue those who are supposedly their public servants, just to receive a simple and straightforward explanation of how decisions seriously adverse to their interests were made. No one should have to sue the Government to be told the truth. If there is any one duty that the American people have a right to expect their Government to strictly observe, it is to tell the truth.

It has instead become glaringly apparent that the State Department, without any public disclosure or open acknowledgement of its policy, has secretively abandoned all pretense of maintaining impartiality and fairness, and has aligned itself with interests of a few foreign nations and the ideology of the anticollecting conservation lobby. In effect the State Department is now waging war against American collectors, through all regulatory and administrative means at its disposal. That is an alarming prospect for collectors who are being kept in the dark and are not being told the truth about what is happening.

Even more alarming is the growing suspicion that there may very well be something rotten in the halls of Foggy Bottom motivating this intense, seemingly inexplicable focus on concealment and secrecy, something so rotten that it simply cannot stand the light of day, perhaps a shocking scandal in the making. The stonewalling, obfuscation and evasion from the State Department are beginning to inspire unsettling recollections of Watergate. Will this become another dismal, revolting example of the Government unscrupulously lying to the American people, in a desperate attempt to cover up errors and misdeeds by officials who have failed to live up to their ethical responsibilities?

The Ancient Coin Collectors Guild is the only organization actively defending collectors against the steady and insidious encroachment of legislation and regulations aimed at restricting and perhaps eventually banning private collecting. This is an expensive process, both in terms of time donated by our volunteer staff and the funds required to pursue legal action. I urge every reader to join the ACCG and to contribute generously toward this worthy cause.


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