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Bulgaria, U.S. Customs restrict ancient coins

The status of ancient coins imported into the United States from parts of Eastern Europe appears to be caught in a lose-lose situation.
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Coins excavated in or originating from Bulgaria prior to 1750 are now subject to severe import restrictions to the United States.

Coins excavated in or originating from Bulgaria prior to 1750 are now subject to severe import restrictions to the United States.

By Richard Giedroyc

The status of ancient coins imported into the United States from parts of Eastern Europe appears to be caught in a lose-lose situation.

Several shipments of ancient coins allegedly excavated in Bulgaria, smuggled through Europe and eventually finding their way to the United States will likely be seized by the Investigations Division of the Department of Homeland Security.

Homeland Security filed a civil forfeiture complaint Feb. 1 in Newark (New Jersey) Federal Court through which Homeland Security expects to take legal custody of the coins. The coins in question were detained when shipped from Europe to Gantcho Zagorski, the owner of the Internet company Diana Coins LLC in New Jersey.

Just prior to this, on Jan. 16, U.S. Customs and Border Protection announced new import restrictions on all Celtic, Greek, Roman Provincial, Bulgarian, and Byzantine Imperial and Ottoman coins minted in Bulgaria at any time through 1750.

U.S. Customs published a designated listing of coins involved in The Federal Register, a publication that announces new federal regulations. The new regulations include unidentified ancient Greek coins originating from geographic locations nearby Bulgaria.

The restrictions on coins dating from 1750 and earlier is what Washington attorney Peter Tompa described as “another major expansion of import restrictions, and one that for the first time reaches coins made as recently as the 18th century.”

Tompa is a collector of ancient coins. He serves as a board member of the Cultural Policy Research Institute and the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild. Tompa is a past vice chairman of the American Bar Association’s Art Cultural Heritage Law Committee.

The new Customs regulations mean that such coins may only be legally imported with documentation proving they were out of Bulgaria as of the date of restrictions, information that is typically unavailable. Foreign sellers are often unwilling to provide this information due to the modest value of most coins the regulations will impact.

“All these coins are widely available for sale within Bulgaria and the rest of the European Union,” Tompa said. “Only American collectors are impacted. Bulgaria has a corrupt cultural establishment which is the root cause of its problems. Import restrictions on Americans won’t help. Change must take place in Bulgaria itself.”

In correspondence in preparation for this article Tompa added, “I’ve heard from a variety of sources [that] despite the propaganda from the archaeologists and the corrupt Bulgarian cultural officials, ancient coins are still very much openly available for sale in Bulgaria itself.”

Zagorski’s situation pre-dates the new Customs regulations, but it may have helped prompt the actions taken by U.S. Customs. Zagorski recently pleaded guilty in court to falsifying sales and gross receipts of $310,901 in 2006 when in fact his business, Diana Coins, generated more than $600,000 during that year. He will be sentenced May 12. A federal grand jury indicted Zagorski of understating his coin business earnings during 2006, 2007 and 2008.

Zagorski made an agreement with prosecutors through which the other two tax counts have been dropped. Zagorski’s agreement with prosecutors also ensures no further charges will be brought against him for allegedly smuggling the ancient coins into the United States, or that he made false statements on customs declarations forms.

The civil forfeiture complaint filed in Newark Federal Court involves 2,394 ancient coins that had been either in Zagorski’s possession or had been shipped to him but were already in the possession of the Department of Homeland Security for the past five years. This action will allow the coins to be formally seized.

The lawsuit states the Investigations Division of the Department of Homeland Security received information indicating Diana Coins smuggled five packages of coins from Germany into the United States between October 2008 and March 2009. Each of these five packages had a declared value of $331 or less and were described incorrectly as collectible items or as tokens.

One of these shipments was allegedly wrapped in a Bulgarian newspaper. This package, containing what was incorrectly described as 329 tokens, was intercepted in March 2009 by U.S. Customs at Newark Liberty International Airport.

The coins are described as being ancient Greek and Roman, with a value of between $6,000 and $21,000 per shipping package. These coins were allegedly obtained from a European wholesaler. No further information on the source of these coins was available at the time this article was being written.

According to an article published in the Feb. 3 issue of the New Jersey newspaper The Record, the government is “arguing the coins were ‘looted’ in Bulgaria and smuggled into the United States.”

Bulgaria is one of several countries in the region that is trying to repatriate antiquities and ancient coins that are almost continuously being illegally exported. Greece, Italy, and Turkey are among the others.

According to the Nov. 5, 2013, issue of Votum Solvit Libens Meriot (VSLM), “In the past two decades, Bulgarian law enforcement agencies say this plunder has turned into a ... [about $45 million US] industry for local gangs, putting it a close third behind drugs and prostitution. The artifacts – gold Roman coins, ancient Greek silver, Thracian military helmets – wind up with falsified documents in auction houses in Europe and North America, or increasingly with wealthy Arab and Asian collectors.”

Bulgarian police estimate there are at least 300 criminal treasure-hunting gangs and a total of about 50,000 people involved in illegal excavations and looting of archeological sites. The looting and smuggling is still out of control, but sources suggest the situation is getting better. With an estimated 40,000 known archaeological sites in Bulgaria, this isn’t easy.

National Museum of History in Sofia Director Professor Bozhidar Dimitrov told VSLM, “In the ‘90s, the police could stop only about 10 percent of the stuff leaving the country. Things have improved a lot. Now they get about 70 to 80 percent. The police show up all the time with new hordes they have seized from shops in Sofia.”

The law in Bulgaria itself is confusing. After a period of chaos following the fall of Communism, a new law was passed requiring Bulgarian coin collectors to register their collections, but parts of this law were struck down by Bulgaria’s constitutional court. Compliance by Bulgarian collectors has been low, in part because they fear if they register their collections that will only invite corrupt Bulgarian police or museum officials to steal them.

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