By Richard Giedroyc
Possible changes regarding restrictions on the importation of certain coins into the United States were discussed during a May 24 open session held by the U.S. State Department Cultural Property Advisory Committee regarding the renewal of existing Memorandum of Understanding with both Bolivia and Greece.
The first two speakers opposed import restrictions on ancient coins, the second two speakers supported restrictions, while the balance of the speakers supported leaving the existing MOUs unchanged.
The MOU with Bolivia focused on textiles and artifacts. When asked by a CPAC committee member about coins found in Bolivia, speaker Nathan Elkins said he “is no expert.” Elkins, however, testified that coins are looted by the thousands. Elkins has previously written an article critical of the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild’s test case regarding ancient coins imported into the United States lacking what is currently required documentation. Elkins favors even commonly encountered coins found in a given country to be covered by the MOU.
Sonia Alconini, who teaches at the University of Texas at San Antonio, testified that archaeological artifacts purchased before 1906 and ecclesiastical artifacts purchased before 1923 are legal to export under Bolivian law.
The MOU with Greece addressed coin imports in more detail. Association of Dealers and Collectors of Ancient and Ethnographic Art representative Sue McGovern said the MOU has not worked, noting there have been no seizures reported. McGovern suggested the MOU not be renewed. ADCAEA believes U.S. Customs should allow the legal import of artifacts on the designated list that can be legally exported from other European Union countries.
McGovern’s statement that artifacts lacking a provenance have no value was challenged by the CPAC committee, pointing out that eBay is full of material lacking any provenance. She picked 1970 as an arbitrary date after which the provenance of objects being sold should be treated as being important. She further suggested Greece sell documented artifacts and use the money to support archaeology.
Peter Tompa represented the International Association of Professional Numismatists and the Professional Numismatists Guild at the open session. According to Tompa, current restrictions based on where a coin was minted rather than where a coin was found are contrary to the Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act. Tompa also pointed out that context is not the most important issue since existing restrictions are on objects of archaeological interest if they are also of cultural significance. He suggested rather than focusing on additional restrictions Greece should require archaeologists to ensure dig site security when absent from that site.
When questioned about due diligence by a CPAC committee member, Tompa said U.S. coin dealers are forming the Council for Numismatic Integrity to ensure transparency. (The CNI website was “under construction” at the time this article was being written.)
Criticism was raised over Tompa’s suggestion that archaeological sites be privatized. Tompa pointed out that few provenances exist for coins and that 18 percent of ancient Greek coins are found outside the borders of Greece.
CPAC member James Willis said the coin issue “is a difficult one,” wondering if all the emphasis on context is to the exclusion of other important issues.
Carmen Arnold-Biucchi supported the MOU and restrictions on all coins found in Greece. This includes Byzantine as well as ancient coins. She emphasized the coins must have been found in Greece. She admitted most ancient coins lack any provenance, but said collectors should be educated about the importance of provenance.
Barbara Tsinakis, who teaches at Vanderbilt University, spoke on behalf of the Archaeology Institute of America. Tsinakis’ opinion is that common artifacts found at the sites of homes have cultural significance because the artifacts have much to tell about how people lived. Coins are commonly encountered artifacts alongside amphora, loom weights and cooking pots.
It should be understood that coins can serve the same purpose as can index fossils at a paleontology dig site, helping to date the site. Coins can also help identify political borders and rulers, trade routes and much more when studied in the context in which they were found.
This article was originally printed in World Coin News.
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