By: Mark Fox
Bulgaria has now joined Cyprus, China, Italy and Greece in asking the United States to restrict the importation of certain antiquities originating from within their borders.
The agreed to wishes of Greece haven’t been made public yet, and Bulgaria is still under consideration, but in the cases of the first three, ancient coins were successfully restricted in bilateral agreements known as Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs).
Collectors had until midnight Nov. 2 to make their opinions, pro or con, heard on the Bulgarian restrictions. Public comments were to be submitted to the State Department’s Cultural Property Advisory Committee (CPAC) at: http://www.regulations.gov/#!submitComment;D=DOS-2011-0115-0001.
As of Oct. 25, only 199 comments had bee been submitted as of October 25. As they stand, they are unlikely to help sway decisions in either direction.
Several prominent coin dealers and auction houses, including Classical Numismatic Group (CNG) and Harlan J. Berk, Ltd., have already alerted their customers about Bulgaria’s request for an MOU with the U.S. and its possible implications on the hobby if implemented. Use of this public venue to influence the outcome of the upcoming deliberations is also supported and urged by the American Numismatic Association.
Without proper records tracing their chain of ownership to before the dates the MOUs were implemented, ancient Cypriot and Chinese coins, including some issues of medieval Chinese, as well as ancient coins of “Italian type,” are all subject to possible confiscation if imported into the US.
In practice, it matters little if, for example, a collection of ancient Cypriot coins assembled a century ago in Germany are shipped to the U.S. If there is no paperwork to prove that they had left Cyprus before July 16, 2007, (the date the latest MOU with Cyprus went into effect), then the coins are vulnerable to seizure.
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On the other hand, coins subject to import restrictions that are already in the U.S. may freely travel within its borders and even be exported. Importation is the issue, along with corresponding proof that the coins had legally entered the U.S.
Naturally, the MOUs have no effect on any other country, which has been a source of much frustration to U.S. coin collectors and numismatic researchers.
“The request from Bulgaria for import restrictions on cultural property is disingenuous at best,” said Wayne G. Sayles, founder and current Executive Director of the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild (ACCG), “because the Bulgarian government is not serious about enforcing their own laws internally.”
Why should the U.S. collector be subjected to sanctions that Bulgaria itself has little stomach for? Sayles asked.
“Ancient coins from Bulgaria are like pollen from a cedar – they are everywhere and land wherever they please, Sayles said. “Trying to suppress the market for ancient coins from Bulgarian mints is absurd, but the U.S. State Department has never let absurdity deflect its ambitions.”
Why the Bulgarian MOU should be especially worrying to coin collectors of all stripes is that while the proposed list of restricted objects is still hush hush, the time span involved is enormous.
In the official U.S. government notice, which can be read on the regulations.gov website here:
http://www.regulations.gov/#!documentDetail;D=DOS-2011-0115-0001, import restrictions are requested for “archaeological and ethnological material from Bulgaria dating to the Neolithic Period (7500 B.C.) through the nineteenth century A.D.” In other words, even modern coin issues (most likely hammered Ottoman types) could be at stake as well.
However, the dim forecast concerning their ancient counterparts should not be taken lightly either. The area of what now is Bulgaria was home to numerous ancient peoples who struck coinage under the direction of early Greek cities (such as Apollonia Pontika, Mesambria, and Odessus), Thracian tribes (as in the Derroni and Orreski) and kings (Kotys I, Seuthes III, Lysimachus, etc.), various Roman emperors, and later by Byzantine and other medieval rulers. For many new collectors, the first ancient coins in their collections were likely unearthed in Bulgaria, whether they were coins of Lysimachus, Roman provincial issues struck for the city of Marcianopolis, Nicopolis ad Istrum, Serdica, or Philippopolis, or Roman imperial bronzes minted during the time of Constantine or later.
The motives for requesting the Bulgarian MOU with the U.S. mirror all the others before it: to reduce looting, smuggling, and the destruction of archaeological artifacts and the knowledge gained from them when properly excavated. Clearly these are serious problems that must be addressed, as most numismatists will agree, but to hinder important numismatic research afforded by coin collecting is a hard pill to swallow for most.
Moreover, will the restrictions, if passed, even achieve the two countries’ goals has been a subject of considerable doubt. Significantly stricter antiquity laws long endured by collectors and scholars on the Bulgarian side have done little if anything to curb systematic looting at all levels of Bulgarian society. One Bulgarian numismatist outlined for this writer a rare description of what recently happened in his country:
This recent MOU-request of the Bulgarian government is directly linked with the new ‘Antiquities Act’ in Bulgaria—enforced since 10th April 2009 (published in ‘State Gazette’, no.19, of 13 March 2009; full text here: http://www.lex.bg/bg/laws/ldoc/2135623662— in Bulgarian, Google it). It was harshly criticized and much debated on all sides and parties; there were a couple of great public disputes; nobody liked it, but it was finally accepted by the previous government (dominated by BSP—the former communists). More recently (in July 2011) two to three minor amendments of that law were passed by the National Assembly, but in effect it is enabled un-changed, however useless and incomplete it is.
According to its regulations, everything found in the lands of modern Bulgaria dating from the Neolithic period to the early 1900s is defined as “national cultural values” equal “antiquity” belongs to the state and cannot be exported (without a special permission by the Ministry of Culture [very hard, nearly impossible to get in fact]).
The only good news in this amendment is the NEW article 7, point 4.1, which excludes all:
1. Milled coins and coin-like objects (i.e. medals, etc.), without scientific research and exhibition significance.
The law also obliged all collectors to declare all their possessions within a some six- to nine-month period (with an expensive and very slow bureaucratic procedure). Do you know what happened in reality? Of the some 50,000 coin collectors in this country (enlisted in the early 1990s at the numismatic clubs), only around 150-200 collections were de facto declared by this law. The rest simply vanished, buried in bank safes, hidden in the ground, etc. The owners just did not want to bother. Much of it will be exported/smuggled and will finally reach the market, no doubt.