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Testimony at the Cultural Property Advisory Committee Hearing: To Be or Not To Be

By Wayne Sayles – Ancient Coin Collecting

That is the Question on everyone’s mind this morning as the Cultural Property Advisory Committee reconvened on Friday to consider the extension of a bilateral agreement with Italy that restricts the importation of certain classes of antiquities into the United States. Thursday morning, the committee heard comments in open public session from representatives of five main groups of concerned citizens—Archaeologists, Museum Administrators, Art and Antiquity Collectors, the Numismatic Trade and Ancient Coin Collectors.

From the numismatic community’s perspective, extension of the current Memorandum Of Understanding in some form seems a foregone conclusion, though some opponents argued very persuasively that the whole MOU is badly flawed and should be scrapped. The pressing issue for coin collectors is whether the addition of coins, already exempted in two previous five-year terms of the MOU, is to be or not to be.

In an era when politicians on both sides of the aisle are clamoring for transparent government and “sunshine” laws offer a promise of fair play and access, the U.S. State Department doggedly maintains its “distance” from the looking glass of public scrutiny.

None of the seven speakers from the numismatic community had the foggiest notion whether Italy had even requested that coins should be added—an ironic situation, since the State Department hearing was held in that part of Washington known as “Foggy Bottom.”

Unlike the mysterious Chinese request some years ago, one might presume, from the comments of Mr. Stefano De Caro, General Director of Antiquities within the Italian Ministry of Culture, that Italy did indeed ask for the addition of coins—even though the State Department ignored direct requests for an answer to that question.

Sebastian Heath, whose affiliation was vague and was actually the point of a followup question by one committee member, was listed by the State Department as an American Institute of Archaeology representative. He claimed, upon pressing of the point, that he actually represented himself. The fact that Heath often works for or at the American Numismatic Society, and personally participated in drafting the ANS statement on cultural property, was questioned in light of his recommendation that coins be added to the MOU.

The ANS statement says, in part, “…..within the world of artifacts, coins as a class do, in fact, stand apart.” Heath avoided the apparent conflict of positions by stating repeatedly that to his knowledge the ANS takes no position in the issue. It would have been interesting to see that question explored in some depth, but Mr. Heath mercifully escaped being hoist with his own petard for lack of time in the busy agenda.

Arthur Houghton, former Getty curator and ANS president, spoke eloquently from the perspective of his background as a former State Department official and a former member of CPAC—though he officially represented none of the above in this case and did not specifically weigh in on the coin issue.

He characterized the MOU with Italy, in considerable detail, as a seriously deficient and poorly crafted agreement. Houghton opined that the original agreement signed ten years ago may actually have been written by someone other than a State Department employee. One might assume that he was suggesting Italian involvement.

Another numismatist speaking without affiliation was Rick Witschonke, who (like the ACCG) advocated the British system of cultural property protection as a way forward.

Art Friedberg, speaking as a private numismatist, pointed out that imposing legal restrictions would not serve to restrict the flow of material in any serious way because of the impracticality and unpopularity of this approach.

Attorney and registered lobbyist Peter Tompa represented the numismatic trade and I represented the ACCG while Mrs. Souzana Steverding represented Ancient Coins for Education. The ACCG paper is online at the guild website.

Clifford Mishler, President and Doug Mudd, Museum Curator of the American Numismatic Association appeared in person to oppose any addition of coins to the MOU.

Although several trustees or fellows of the ANS were present as speakers at this public session, the ANS position as adopted on 22 October 2005 was never mentioned. In fact, its existence seemed to be intentionally avoided.

The archaeological community was represented by an equal number of speakers and their message was consistent, if not predictable. They expressed concern over site looting and argued that controlling the collector market for coins would eliminate that looting.

There were a few interesting comments. Susan Alcock, of Brown University, made the remarkable statement that “coins don’t walk” in a futile attempt to demonstrate the overriding importance of coins in context. She also made the quite inaccurate statement that coins are the archaeologist’s most important tool for stratigraphical dating.

This fundamental lack of understanding exemplifies the sort of ideological banner waving that archaeological zealots are prone to. Actually, savvy field archaeologists realize that individual coins are not very effective for dating strata because they remained in circulation for a very long time, hundreds of years in some cases. Pottery is actually considered a more reliable medium for dating.

Furthermore, coins rarely stay in the strata where they first were lost, unless they are part and parcel of, or restricted in movement by, some larger object. Loose coins migrate to the surface just like rocks and arrowheads.

Alcock flippantly admitted that “there may be millions of the little suckers” but advocated that they should be included in the list of restricted items anyway.

Another archaeologist, Elizabeth Burton, tossed out the obligatory and trite refrain that ” the market fuels looting”. Alice Friedman of George Washington University argued that it is impossible to understand artifacts without a scientific record of their context. As an Art Historian, I found that a woefully inaccurate and rather uneducated statement. I couldn’t help but wonder how Prof. John Boardman would have responded to that? The Oxford archaeologist has been quite outspoken in criticizing this sort of myopia.

AIA President Brian Rose seemed to support a continued exemption for coins that circulated in antiquity beyond the borders of modern day Italy. This is a rather odd position that essentially negates the “cultural heritage” argument and places the decision on a purely artificial basis.

Virtually any coin type struck in Italy can be said to have left the country prior to any applicable nationalist laws being imposed since they were exported to collectors in Northern Europe with considerable intensity as far back as the days of the Italian Renaissance—even if they didn’t circulate in trade.

The phrase that Dr. Rose used to recommend import restrictions on coins was subtly insightful. Although he clearly stated that coins should be added, he used the term “along the lines that Italy has requested” in that context. Was that a slip of the tongue? Did Dr. Rose actually have knowledge of something that nobody in the numismatic community was privy to? Was he personally in communication with the State Department before this hearing and was he provided “inside” information that the addition of coins (or some coins) had formally been requested by Italy? Of course we can’t know that, and probably never will know unless the question were to come up somewhere in a legal deposition.

Richard Leventhal of the University of Pennsylvania, made and reemphasized the bold and unambiguous statement that “duplicates do not exist” in reference to coins. Each coin, according to Leventhal, has it’s own context and therefore all are unique in his view.

He also argued that expanding loans to museums would eliminate the need for a licit market. Nobody on the committee challenged that obvious attack on licit activity, even though CPIA is supposedly about controlling “illicit” activity.

It was an unusually clear statement of intent against the legitimate hobby, which most archaeologists superficially avoid even though they support draconian restrictions that would affect the licit market like chemotherapy—killing the good along with the bad.

Issues of law became a point of some contention in the comments of attorney William Pearlstein of New York City and law professor Patty Gerstenblith of DePaul University. Pearlstein represented a group of private collectors outside the numismatic community. The work of CPAC is largely a function of making determinations that are mandated by the Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act and consequently the law itself, and its application, comes constantly into question.

Covering the event were reporters from the Washington Post and Coin World, along with a few other interested observers.

The wait now begins for release of the outcome, which will likely manifest itself in a formal announcement by the State Department if the MOU is to be extended of expanded.

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