Sunday, May 9, 2010

Two Sides of the Same Coin

When it comes to the regulation of ancient coins, there is a debate that has arisen in the United States. This weekend, The Washington Post explained that for generations coin collecting took place without any regulations in place. However, in recent years, the United States began to place restrictions on the import of certain ancient coins in an effort to curb the larger problem of the illegal excavations of archaeological sites and the illicit trade of cultural property. Ancient Cypriot coins and ancient Chinese coins were restricted in 2007 and 2009, respectively, and coin collectors, or numismatists, have expressed concern that Roman coins will be next. Under the regulations, anyone who brings these coins into the United States must have export permits from the Cypriot or Chinese governments or documentation proving that they were excavated before the regulations were put in place or discovered outside of Cyprus and China.

The debate has garnered attention following the seizure of 23 bronze coins at Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport last April. The coins have a worth of $275 and were purchased by the Missouri-based Ancient Coin Collectors Guild. In the lawsuit filed this February in Maryland federal court, the collectors of the guild argued that coins were circulated so often during the ancient world that it would be impossible to prove conclusively where they were excavated. In addition, the guild questions how far-reaching the effects of the regulations will be in light of the fact that the restrictions will apply only to American coin collectors.

Wayne G. Sayles, executive director of the guild, acknowledges the importance of laws that safeguard cultural property. However, he argues that coins are in a different category than archaeological artifacts and work of art because of the comparatively lower value. In addition, Sayles explains to the paper that "collectors keep, study and protect coins that museums don't want."

Richard M. Leventhal, an anthropology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, is of a very different opinion. He tells The Washington Post, "Coins are part of the record of our past. To learn about the past and think about our identities and cultural heritage, coins have to be included. Ripping stuff out of the ground destroys our knowledge of who we are and where we came from."

On May 5, both Sayles and Leventhal were present at a hearing before the State Department's Cultural Property Advisory Committee with regard to an agreement with Italy restricting the import of certain Roman artifacts. Archaeologists want coins added to the list, while collectors like Sayles are lobbying against this addition.

So what side of the coin do you agree with? Should ancient Roman coins, for example, be treated the same as ancient Roman pottery or a statue and protected?


  1. Nice summary Nora,

    I'm certainly not alone in believing that coins are different. The American Numismatic Society, which has very close ties to archaeology, says in the Board approved statement on cultural property posted on their web site: "...within the world of artifacts, coins as a class do, in fact, stand apart."

    The ACCG is sincerely sympathetic to the problems of archaeological site looting, but feels that provenance based regulation of the licit market is unworkable due to the 600 years of accumulated numismatic material already in the market — millions of coins — which for the most part have no recorded provenance.

  2. Thank you very much for posting, Mr. Sayles. It is a fascinating discussion and one that I look forward to learning more about and following.