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State Department Adds New Import Restrictions

A summary of the recent Memorandum of Understanding signed between the United States and China.

By Peter K. Tompa from the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild

Kai Yuan Tong Bao - The Tang Dynasty - 737The State Department recently announced import restrictions on a wide array of Chinese cultural artifacts, including some coins. The Chinese restrictions specifically cover archaeological materials representing China’s cultural heritage from the Paleolithic Period (c. 75,000 B.C.) through the end of the Tang Period (A.D. 907) and irreplaceable monumental sculpture and wall art at least 250 years old. While broad, the restrictions are nowhere near as extensive as China’s original request which purportedly sought restrictions on artifacts made as recently as 1911.

Under the provision, restricted artifacts must be accompanied upon entry into the US with either a valid Chinese export certificate or certifications indicating that the artifact in question left China before the effective date of the restrictions, January 16, 2009.

The Federal Register has listed the coin types impacted as follows:

a. Zhou Media of Exchange and Tool-shaped Coins: Early media of exchange include bronze spades, bronze knives, and cowrie shells. During the 6th century BC, flat, simplified, and standardized cast bronze versions of spades appear and these constitute China’s first coins. Other coin shapes appear in bronze including knives and cowrie shells. These early coins may bear inscriptions.

b. Later, tool-shaped coins began to be replaced by disc-shaped ones which are also cast in bronze and marked with inscriptions. These coins have a central round or square hole.

c. Qin: In the reign of Qin Shi Huangdi (221–210 BC) the square-holed round coins become the norm. The new Qin coin is inscribed simply with its weight, expressed in two Chinese characters ban liang. These are written in small seal script and are placed symmetrically to the right and left of the central hole.

d. Han through Sui: Inscriptions become longer, and may indicate that inscribed object is a coin, its value in relation to other coins, or its size. Later, the period of issue, name of the mint, and numerals representing dates may also appear on obverse or reverse. A new script, clerical (lishu), comes into use in the Jin.

e. Tang: The clerical script becomes the norm until 959, when coins with regular script (kaishu) also begin to be issued.


The ACCG continues to seek information about the Chinese import restrictions decision in its ongoing Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the State Department. Based on materials received to date, there remains a serious question whether China actually asked for coins to be included in the request, or whether bureaucrats within the State Department’s “Cultural Heritage Center” added them on their own or at the behest of American archaeologists.

About the Author

The Ancient Coin Collectors Guild is a non-profit organization committed to promoting the free and independent collecting of coins from antiquity. The goal of this guild is to foster an environment in which the general public can confidently and legally acquire and hold any numismatic item of historical interest regardless of date or place of origin. ACCG strives to achieve its goals through education, political action, and consumer protection.

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  1. Jorg Lueke | Feb 8, 2009 | Reply

    It is sad to see that coins are for the second time the subject of import restrictions. While looting of archaeological sites may be a problem coins are usually found in isolation from other archaeological objects. In the 2006 PAS report only 0.25% of finds came from archaeological digs and over 90% of finds were of isolated items in what most people would not consider an archaeological dig site. Preventing the import of coins does little on the looting front.

    The CPIA, the legal authority that lets the goverment import restrictions, also calls on the source country to implement measures to prevent looting. What has China done internally? Have they promoted a licit antiquities trade? Have they crated a way to log finds and reward finders? Or are they simply using import restrictions to further a Nationalistic agenda?

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