Skip to main content

Debate ensues over ancient coins

  • Author:
  • Publish date:

By Richard Giedroyc

Views, both pro and con, regarding what should be done about a proposed Memorandum of Understanding with Egypt that among other things addresses private ownership of ancient Egyptian coins were presented recently at a meeting of the U.S. State Department’s Cultural Property Advisory Committee.

It is the import of antiquities including ancient coins into the United States from Egypt that is being discussed. There is concern among archaeologists and others that illegal activities including plundering and smuggling are impacting archaeological dig sites and other institutions.

The CPAC hearing was held to address Egypt’s request for a ban on the import of artifacts dating between pre-historic times through the time of the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman Empire fell in the early 20th century during World War I. Archaeological groups began lobbying the U.S. government to place a ban on the import of Egyptian artifacts in 2011. The U.S. State Department took no action on the requests at that time. Since then the Arab Spring revolution took place.

An MoU is a bilateral or multilateral agreement between two or more parties. The new Egyptian government of President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi is now requesting the MoU with the United States regarding the export of Egyptian antiquities to the US.

Among those addressing the CPAC hearing was Ancient Coin Collectors’ Guild representative and ancient coin dealer Wayne Sayles. Sayles pointed out that the Ptolemaic Egyptian currency system was a closed system meant to keep foreign coins out rather than Ptolemaic coins in the ancient Egyptian nation. Sayles noted Roman Egyptian tetradachms had an equivalent silver content to one Roman denarius, which is likely why they circulated.

When asked by University of California at Berkley-Anthropology Department representative Rosemary Joyce if it is possible to identify an illicit coin by looking at it Sayles replied this would be difficult.

Peter Tompa is a Washington attorney. Speaking for the International Association of Professional Numismatists and the Professional Numismatists Tompa said coins should be excluded from the proposed MoU. Ptolemaic coins circulated within an empire that reached beyond Egypt. Roman Egyptian tetradrachms appear to have traveled since they have been found in the United Kingdom and in Eastern Europe. Tompa said import of the coins should not be restricted using the assumption they are found exclusively within modern Egypt.

When asked by Joyce about documenting the origins of ancient coins Tompa noted most are imported from Europe where documentation requirements are not as important.

Harvard University representative Carmen Arnold-Biucchi said she favors restrictions on all coins first discovered in Egypt, while acknowledging not all coins circulating in ancient Egypt were struck there. Arnold-Biucchi noted Ptolemaic Egyptian coins were struck at mints outside of Egypt as well. It is wrong to assume a coin will be found where it was struck. She emphasized collectors need to understand the importance of retaining information on the provenance of coins.

International Association of Dealers in Ancient Art representative Alan Safani told CPAC IADAA has seen no increase in available merchandise since the Egyptian revolution of 2011. According to Safani, Egypt’s most pressing problem is combating religious extremists who see ancient artifacts as pagan material that should be destroyed. Safani added that artifacts were legally sold within Egypt decades ago with no effective export controls. Issuance of documentation was “haphazard.”

American Research Center in Egypt representative David O’Connor told CPAC looting was under control in Egypt prior to the revolution. O’Connor said a MoU is necessary to address recent looting.

Laurel Bestock of Brown University told CPAC while excavating in Egypt she encountered a cache of 300 Ptolemaic large bronze coins in what appears to be a ritual deposit. Looters arrived but were driven off. Bestock was concerned there are people in Egypt who want the coins destroyed as being pagan idols.

Lawyer’s Committee for Cultural Heritage Preservation representative Elizabeth Varner said Egypt has satisfied the criteria for a MoU due to serious looting. According to Varner, many countries have signed the UNESCO Convention and/or have interdicted looted Egyptian artifacts so the concerted international response is met. Looting cannot be stopped entirely at the source.

Egyptologist and activist Monica Hanna showed CPAC photographs of the aftermath of looting. According to Hanna, organized looters seek any materials available, including coins. She said Bedouins smuggle material through the Sinai Peninsula into Israel. She maintains items offered on eBay are looted. Hanna made it clear she is only interested in shutting down the market in material that left Egypt after 1983. She believes the trade should be ended until the looting emergency gets under control.

Douglas Boin of St. Louis University questioned if the looted material is going to the Gulf States and Russia. He said it takes three to five years for it to “flow through the system,” if it really exists. He acknowledged that very little material taken from Iraq has been seen in the markets. Boin supports the idea of foreign archaeologists helping pay for security.

No decision on the MoU had been made at the time this article was being written.