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Does Where a Coin Circulate Matter?

Can the current government of Cyprus consider this anonymous Byzantine bronze issued from any of several unidentified provincial mints part of Cyprus’ cultural patrimony because coins of this type circulated there?

Can the current government of Cyprus consider this anonymous Byzantine bronze issued from any of several unidentified provincial mints part of Cyprus’ cultural patrimony because coins of this type circulated there?

Can ancient coins that circulated within a country, but the primary circulation of those coins was elsewhere, be claimed as the cultural patrimony of the country in which they only circulated more by happenstance?

This is a question under review at recent U.S. Cultural Property Advisory Committee hearings in which renewals of Memorandum of Understanding with several countries were being considered. Some of these hearings included renewal considerations for import restrictions that can include certain ancient coins.

Washington attorney Peter Tompa has been representing the International Association of Professional Numismatists. Tompa’s law practice focuses on small businesses, auction houses, trade associations, advocacy groups, collectors, and museums on issues relating to international trade in cultural goods. Tompa has served as executive director of the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild.

Addressing the July 17 CPAC meeting Tompa said, “The Cypriot designated list was amended to add Byzantine, Medieval, Frankish, Lusignan, Venetian, and Ottoman coin types that ‘circulated primarily’ in Cyprus. As such, the State Department again appears to be applying a looser standard than that contemplated by 19 USC Section 2601.”

Tompa continued, “without being more specific, this ‘circulated primarily’ phraseology also raises “fair notice” questions under 19 USC Section 2604. That provision requires the designate list be ‘sufficiently specific and precise’ so that the import restrictions only apply to items covered by the agreement, and that fair notice is given to importers.”

The IAPN presented evidence at the earlier April 26 CPAC hearing indicating that under this ‘circulated primarily’ standard all archaic, classical, and Hellenistic gold coins of Cyprus should be delisted along with all silver coins of Alexander III (“the Great”) of Macedon, Philip III Archidaelus, and Demetrius I Poliorcetes.

The July 26 CPAC meeting was held to consider proposed MOUs renewals with Belize and Libya. At this meeting Tompa noted that it can’t be assumed most coins on the designated list are only found in Libya, or that these coins “circulated primarily” in Libya, which is the standard set by the U.S. State Department. Coin types that don’t meet the standard, according to Tompa, should be delisted.

Randolph Myers spoke on behalf of the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild. He spoke at the same July 26 CPAC meeting. Myers addressed the injustice of import restrictions on Jewish cultural artifacts. He also indicated there is hoard evidence proving that most types of coins on the current designated list are found in far greater frequency than they are found in Libya. This, according to Myers, is particularly true for the famous type with the silphium plant on the reverse which were minted to pay mercenaries from Crete. Myers further indicated that the MOU has not been effective with only one Immigration and Customs Enforcement seizure of an artifact that left Libya at least 10 years prior to the MOU.

In June Tompa indicated MOUs or emergency import restrictions are now in place between the United States and 24 nations, including some European Union members such as Italy and superpowers including China.

“They impact an ever-wider range of cultural goods,” according to Tompa, “including items like historical coins that circulated regionally and internationally as items of commerce in the past and are widely collected today. As a result, the U.S. has effectively become the world’s culture cop.”

As more countries attempt to repatriate objects, including coins, claiming to be their cultural patrimony it becomes increasingly important for collectors and museums to have the provenance of each object that might come under scrutiny.

Turkey, as an example, was founded in 1923. Turkey regards Bronze Age, Greek, Roman and Byzantine and later antiquities found within its borders as its national patrimony despite the fact the nation is only 99 years old. The famed Decadrachm Hoard was returned to Turkey in 1999 to finalize a 10-year court battle. Questions remained unanswered about the current whereabouts of the coins in preparation of this article.

Some auction houses have recently appeared to go out of their way to provide this information when describing ancient coin lots. In some situations, the object in question might have left the country illegally, however in other situations the date the object was exported may become a key to if the nation demanding the object’s return had an agreement prior to that date through which the return might be justified.