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Antiquities, ancient coins and changing attitudes in North America

Over the last few years over 100 antiquities have been returned to Italy from major North American museums. The piece that attracted the most publicity was the Sarpedon krater by Euphronios; it was returned by New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. Other items include a Roman portrait statue of Sabina, and quantities of pottery made in Apulia, southern Italy. These voluntary returns, offered without active legal action, have done much to restore the patinated reputations of museums.

The Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) that serves as an umbrella organisation for museums has now changed its policies on the acquisition of undocumented antiquities. The AAMD now advises constituent organisations not to buy objects that are unknown prior to 1970, the date of the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. A public object registry has been launched by the AAMD with the object of letting interested parties check what is passing into public collections. (The scheme has had limited use since its launch with a total of four items in the register by mid-June 2009.)

Some senior figures in the North American museum world --- for example, James Cuno --- have continued to voice their disquiet over the changing situation. But such views appear to be in a minority. Museum curators who handle archaeological material understand the issues and are aware of the level of destruction sustained by archaeological sites around the world to supply "museum quality" objects for the market.

The growing realisation that action needs to be taken about the antiquities market has been reflected in the work of the US Cultural Property Advisory Committee (CPAC). The most noticeable action was over antiquities from Iraq in the wake of the Second Gulf War and the looting of the Baghdad Museum. However there have also been memoranda of agreement with countries such as Italy, China and Cyprus.

The workings of CPAC are now under scrutiny. A Freedom of Information Act suit (FOIA) was filed against the US Department of State back in November 2007; this was in response to the restriction on the imports of ancient coins from Cyprus. This action was supported by three bodies: the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild (ACCG), the International Association of Professional Numismatists (IAPN), and the Professional Numismatists Guild (PNG).

The purpose of the FOIA suit is made clear on the ACCG website:
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.
Why have these bodies taken such action against the US Department of State?

The IAPN, based in Brussels, Belgium, states on its website:
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.
The PNG describes itself as follows:
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.
This is clarified as follows:
The Professional Numismatists Guild, Inc. is the only numismatic organization in the United States that restricts its membership to dealers who possess and demonstrate three essential qualifications: Knowledge, Integrity and Responsibility.
Is this alliance of three organisations in reality acting over freedom of information? Could there also be an implicit commercial interest in the liberalisation of the market in ancient coins?

The US State Department, as Defendant in the case, seems to suspect ulterior motives and made this statement in their formal reply (dated May 19, 2009):
Consequently, Plaintiffs’ claims that they are advocating the public interest are properly viewed with some skepticism given ACCG’s “two phase” “coordinated plan” to attempt to rescind the import restrictions, which would commercially benefit a number of its benefactors, who appear to be U.S.-based dealers and brokers of ancient coins.
This statement has been refuted by the Plaintiffs (the ACCG, the IAPN, and the PNG).

In April 2009 the ACCG tested the agreements with Cyprus and China by deliberately bringing a set of ancient coins in the USA by air ("Coin Collectors to Challenge State Department on Import Restrictions", PR Newswire May 13, 2009).
As mandated, U.S. Customs detained the coins upon arrival. The ACCG now plans to use this detention as a vehicle to strike down the unprecedented regulations banning importation of whole classes of ancient coins. The collectors' advocacy group claims that, among other abnormalities, the decision process for these agreements was orchestrated contrary to the spirit and intent of governing law.
The ACCG seems intent on criticising a policy that is intended to offer some protection to the archaeological heritage of Cyprus and China by placing restrictions on the movement of material that may have been derived as a result of illicit diggings on archaeological sites.

So will the legal action and test case merely serve to inflame the situation? Do such actions present to the world an image of North American collectors of archaeological material (and that includes ancient coins) who are more interested in owning objects than preserving archaeological contexts and integrity?


Sunny Cherkea said…
While not the primary focus of this post, I just wanted to make a comment about museum-focused organizations. The AAMD is not an umbrella organization for museums, but only offers membership by invitation only, with up to 200 members currently subscribed. The American Association of Museums (AAM), however, is an umbrella organization encompassing all types of museums including Science Centers and Zoos. AAM has also revised their policies as of July 2008, “Standards Regarding Archaeological Material and Ancient Art.”

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