Tuesday, 9 October 2007

Coins and Cyprus: action on the ground

I noticed the report from AP, "Cypriot police seize ancient artifacts, arrest 6 suspected smugglers" (and reported in the IHT, Friday, October 5, 2007 [archived]).

Apparently there was a police "sting" in Limassol, Cyprus, on Friday September 28, 2007. Six individuals were arrested. Among the confiscated antiquities were "gold leaves and rings, two mediaeval gold coins and a bronze cross".

The recent US import restrictions on antiquities from Cyprus have created much debate about the "looting" of antiquities on the island.

Feelings are running high with three officers of the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild (ACCG) posting blogs or comments with such emotive titles as "Yes, it's a war", "Black Day for Numismatics: Import Restrictions on Cypriot Coins", and "Slapdash Effort at DOS".

So I wonder if Messrs. Sayles (Secretary), Tompa (President) and Welsh will join me in congratulating the authorities on Cyprus for this latest seizure which has stopped "illicit" antiquities and coins from entering the market.


Nathan Elkins said...

I read another version of this story from the "Cyprus Mail." http://www.cyprus-mail.com/news/main.php?id=35133&cat_id=1 Instead of six smugglers it states that five were arrested.

However, it also states that hundreds of coins (including gold and bronze coins) were seized rather than just two Medieval gold coins. There is some inconsistency between the two articles, but coins may have been a more significant part of the cache than reported in the first article. Indeed, if the smugglers were intending on selling only part of the shipment for c. 280,000 Euros, we can imagine the report did not give us a full inventory of what was seized from the hands of the smugglers.

Some had claimed that there was no evidence that coins and antiquities were being looted to any 'significant' degree from Cyprus, despite the concern of the Cypriot government which prompted the request for extension of import restrictions. These arrests indicate that looters and smugglers operate in Cyprus (and, yes, they trade in coins as well as other 'minor art' objects) and the request to the State Department was not made on an unsubstantiated whim. Indeed, systematic looting and the smuggling of illicitly 'excavated' antiquities is a problem that greatly affects most countries from the regions formerly dominated by the Greeks and Romans. To scholars that work outside of classical antiquity, it is clear that looting affects their respective areas of interests (China, SE Asia, Africa, the Middle East, the Americas). The illict market in antiquities - which includes coins and the 'minor arts' are not exempt - is a global problem.

Peter Tompa said...


It's disappointing to see you and Nathan Elkins evidently prefer baiting members of my organization (ACCG) to seeking dialogue aimed at achieving workable solutions to the issue of coins.

I actually welcome internal self-help measures by countries like Cyprus, but believe that they should start with the promulgation of fair systems like that embodied in the Treasure Act and Portable Antiquities Scheme.

At a minimum, one would think the Cypriots should be willing to regulate the use of metal detectors, but it is my understanding that the Cypriots are resistant as the tourists like to use them!

In any event, it is unclear how these arrests support a case for efforts to shift the burden of proof onto collectors and dealers to show that their coins are held "legitimately" through the legal device of import restrictions.

If anything, don't these arrests instead suggest that seizures should be based on some "reasonable suspicion" that someone has actually done something wrong?

For Nathan's benefit, you should also note that the claim that little is being looted from Cypriot territory emanates directly from the Cypriots themselves. An official Cypriot Government report blames most looting on the Island on the Turkish military which occupies Northern Cyprus.

Unfortunately, reading such reports makes one wonder if a primary motive for seeking import restrictions is to help the nationalistic Greek Cypriot Government score propaganda points in their cold war with the Turks.

Certainly, other reports like one recently published in the Cyprus Mail entitled, "Too Much Digging Is Damaging Our Heritage" paint a rather unflattering picture of the state of archaeology on the Island.

What is needed is efforts to achieve solutions that are reasonable to all concerned. Unfair rules like those embodied in import restrictions do little to advance that goal and much to alienate collectors and dealers from the archaeological community, the State Department and countries like Cyprus.


Peter Tompa

David Gill said...


I wonder if you are trying to muddy the waters by raising the issue of the situation in Northern Cyprus.

Nathan makes the point that this seizure contained both antiquities and coins. The coin lobby cannot have special pleading.

If we can agree that we have an interest in the past, then can we all also agree that the arrest of those who appear to have handled looted antiquities (and coins) is a good thing?

Best wishes


Peter Tompa said...


The arrests probably are a "good thing," provided that they were accomplished fairly with all due process rights afforded to the accused under Cypriot law.

Keep in mind, however, that Cyprus like much of Europe (and unlike the US and the UK) has an accusatorial system of criminal justice. Thus, what is advertised by the police as a major bust may be less than meets the eye.

I should also note I am opposed philosophically to any system that assumes anything old is state property and relies completely on a punitive approach.

Fair systems like the Treasure Act and PAS are much better as they recognize there are other interests out there besides those of the archaeological community and the state. Wouldn't be better cheer on criminal sanctions for those who violate fair laws than those who violate ones which would not meet basic standards of fairness in the US or UK?

The other problem with systems like that in place in Cyprus is that they often operate in a two-tiered fashion. If you are the little fish and you get caught, the full weight of the state crashes down upon you. On the other hand, if you are a big fish (or know one), the same rules don't apply.

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.)

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.

Overall, hyping news reports like this does nothing but divert attention from real solutions to such issues. The Cypriots certainly are entitled to enforce their own law within their own borders, but while I approve of their efforts at self help, I will hold any applause.


Peter Tompa

David Gill said...


I was more than surprised to read your comments. Do you really mean what you have said here?

Cyprus, like the UK, is part of Europe and subject to the same levels of integrity.

Your comments about the archaeological community who "do little more than encourage unfair laws, public corruption and a do nothing approach to preservation of cultural artifacts" are misleading and offensive. Did you really mean them to be read in this fashion?

The authorities are finding a solution to looting: they are arresting those who appear to be involved in the process and confiscating the seized antiquities (and coins). But perhaps this is not the type of solution you had in mind?

Best wishes


David Gill said...

For some of the issues on Cyprus see the relevant section from the Department of Antiquities:

David Gill said...

Tompa makes this point:
"one would think the Cypriots should be willing to regulate the use of metal detectors, but it is my understanding that the Cypriots are resistant as the tourists like to use them! "

Before anybody thinks this gives the green light for the use of metal detectors, it would be worth checking the UK National Council for Metal Detecting.

For Cyprus they advise:

"Although not specifically mentioning metal detectors, section 14(1) implicitly rules
them out, nor can a landowner legally give permission for a search to be carried
out if it results in excavation."

Peter Tompa said...

David- The new MOU with Cyprus explicitly calls for Cyprus to further regulate metal detectors. The Cypriots have an important tourist industry. It remains to be seen what, if anything, they accomplish in this regard, particularly if such restrictions may seen to impact that industry.

Too bad the new MOU does not suggest that Cyprus investigate laws like the Treasure Act and PAS.

A representative of the Cypriot embassy did come to see Dr. Bland talk about the program in Washington, D.C., which was welcome, but that is a long way from seriously investigating the issue.


Peter Tompa

David Gill said...

Thank you for pointing this out.

For the record the MOU states:

"The Government of the Republic of Cyprus will use its best efforts to further restrict the use of metal detectors".

The document can be found at:

It is worth reading this against Brian Rose's comments in his submission to CPAC:

"Looters use electronic detectors to locate metal objects, particularly coins. In the course of their subsequent search, the looters cause significant damage by digging through the sites’ ancient habitation deposits to find the objects that the metal detector registered; this damages the evidence for settlement that we need to use in our reconstruction of life in that area in antiquity. In other words, it destroys the history of the people who once lived there, as well as jeopardizing the cultural patrimony of the Republic of Cyprus."

This can be found at:

Best wishes

David Gill said...

A reader who wishes to remain anonymous left this message:

"If metal detectorists are saying this themselves it stands to reason that regulations actually already exist to the extent that these websites would want to caution their fellow hobbyists."

onlylight said...

I live in Cyprus and have ordered a metal detector off the net. Its taking some time coming I hope customs haven 't held it up!
Also , I know i cant metal detect on or near archeological sites, but can I detect on the beach and on fields?

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