The State Department recently imposed unprecedented import restrictions on ancient coins from Cyprus—requiring importers of even a single common coin of “Cypriot type” to provide unfair, unworkable and unnecessary documentation.
The suit is reported to be backed by three bodies: the ACCG, the International Association of Professional Numismatists (IAPN) and the Professional Numismatists Guild (PNG).
Who are these other bodies?
Here are the statements from the websites of the IAPN and the PNG.
The IAPN is a non-profit organisation of the leading international numismatic firms founded 1951. The objectives of the Association are the development of a healthy and prosperous numismatic trade conducted according to the highest standards of business ethics and commercial practice. (IAPN website)
The PNG is a nonprofit organization composed of the world's top rare coin and paper money experts. As numismatic professionals, our primary mission is to make the hobby safe for collectors and investors by maintaining rigid standards of excellence for our member dealers. (PNG website)
Of the three organisations only one, the ACCG, had a statement about this legal action against the state department. It suggests that there is a lead group dealing with this action.
What does the ACCG believe?
Their position appears on their website:
The ACCG was formed to provide a voice for ancient coin collectors on issues that threaten the hobby. Given a widespread disinformation campaign about the extent of looting at the Iraq and Afghan national museums, we fear that ideologues within the archaeological establishment have subverted laudable efforts to protect public collections and archaeological sites into a crusade to suppress the public's longstanding right to preserve, study and display antiquities, including ones as common as ancient coins. Unless we provide decision makers in the legislative and administrative branches of government with our own views on the complex issues surrounding preservation of historical sites, we face the prospect that our right to collect ancient coins will be legislated out of existence by ill-informed decision makers who have been told that anything "old" should belong to the government of the country where it is found, and that only academic elites should have a right to study and preserve the artifacts of the past. (ACCG website)
So what views do the officers of the ACCG want to express to the decision makers in government?
I will try to give a flavour of the views of three of the officers of the ACCG.
Wayne Sayles, the Executive Director, has expressed his views on the decision to restrict the import of coins from Cyprus in a forceful way. In a posting, "Yes, it's a war" (July 13, 2007), he commented:
In response to the U.S. State Department's furtive manipulation of the CPAC hearing on renewal of an agreement with Cyprus, I had made the statement publicly that their action might be considered "the Pearl Harbor of the Cultural Property War". That was apparently offensive to some. Today, the State Department not only affirmed my conclusion, they launched a major offensive against coin collectors. This is not "Pearl Harbor", this is "D-Day" for Cultural Property Nationalists. If that sounds bellicose, it ought to.
He emphasises the right to collect:
Why does this announcement constitute an attack on the American people? Because it codifies the general principle that any country in the world can claim perpetual ownership of objects, including coins, made in that country. ... It is more than a sad commentary that in the "Land of the Free" we are not free to purchase an object that can be purchased legally by millions, indeed billions, of people in other lands. In a world where Globalism is not just a trend but an irreversible fact of life, how can anyone justify turning America into an island of prohibition for something as innocuous as a common coin. Is there no hope at all that the governing of America will rest in the hands of people with common sense?
And the political dimension is explicit:
It is a constant source of frustration to many conservatives that the Republican administration has failed to protect the conservative point of view in an area where a simple word would have been sufficient. Namely, that personal property rights are a mainstay of the American experience; that the government of the United States exists to serve the people of this nation before those of others; and that no other nation shall infringe upon the rights of the American people.
Then we turn to David Welsh, another officer of the ACCG, whose comments on the coin market ("Stealth Unidroit: the State Department’s War Against Collecting") I have discussed elsewhere. Let us remind ourselves of his views:
This development should concern not only coin collectors, but also every American citizen who values his or her personal freedom. Big Brother is watching you, and Big Brother does not like collecting. If this unholy cabal of narrow academic interests, entrenched bureacrats [sic.] and cultural officials in a few foreign nations can secretively and successfully hijack US cultural policy in such a manner, the implications may reach far beyond what happens to coin collecting.
For Welsh the decision to impose restrictions was "a day which will live in infamy" ("Black Day for Numismatics: Import Restrictions on Cypriot Coins").
But what about Peter Tompa, the President of the ACCG? Tompa has criticised the archaeological community for being "obsessed with context" (see my posting, "The archaeological community's obsession with context"). Tompa has appended public comments to my posting, "Coins and Cyprus: action on the ground", and I repeat some of them them here:
The sad fact is that Cyprus has somewhat of a reputation for corruption. It is on a State Department list for being a major money laundering center. It sheltered companies involved in oil for food scandal before the Iraq War. It's not hard to imagine that such a two-tiered system exists in such a place. (Turkey is probably no better despite some hopeful signs under the new government.)Such views of the Republic of Cyprus are deeply disturbing.
As such, those in the archaeological community that blindly support the state owns everything approach probably in practice do little more than encourage unfair laws, public corruption and a do nothing approach to preservation of cultural artifacts. One has to assume their timidity on any issue other than "looting" may stem from a fear that their licenses to excavate can easily be pulled by the cultural property bureaucracies of such countries.
What is the real issue?
I hope that nobody will lose sight of the issue of the looting of archaeological sites on the island of Cyprus - for that was the purpose of the US restrictions on coins. I close with the words of Andreas Kakouris, Cyprus’s ambassador to Washington:
Coins constitute an inseparable part of our own cultural heritage, and the pillage they are subjected to is the same as other archaeological material.