CoinWeek Podcast #137: Standing Up for Coins and Battling MoUs (with Peter Tompa)

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Today on the CoinWeek Podcast we talk to Peter Tompa about the pending renewal of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the United States and the Republic of Italy. This MoU renewal may pose a threat to the coin collecting hobby in the United States and abroad.

MoUs, or Memoranda of Understanding, are agreements between governments that set guidelines for policies that are in the mutual interest. In the case of the recent MoU negotiations between the United States and Italy, restrictions relating to the export of certain Roman coins are under consideration.

Peter Tompa, an attorney and a registered lobbyist for the PNG and the IAPN, has been fighting the good fight to protect our hobby from these burdensome government regulations.

We discuss the present situation with Peter and point out the hypocrisy of archeologist organizations that seek to impose unfair restrictions on collectors.

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The following is a transcript of Charles’ conversation with Peter:
 

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Today, we talk to Peter Tompa, an attorney and a registered lobbyist for the PNG and the IAPN. He is the Executive Director of the Global Heritage Alliance and Ancient Coin Collectors Guild and has been fighting the good fight to protect our hobby from burdensome government regulations for years, including MOUs between countries that limit the sale and the export of ancient coins. We will discuss the present situation with Italy, with Peter, and see if the hobby is about to enter a new phase of restriction.

Charles: Hi, Peter. Thanks for joining me on the CoinWeek Podcast.

Peter Tompa: Thank you for having me.

Charles: It seems like it was not too long ago, but it turns out it was probably about five years when we published Mike Markowitz’s piece about the negative impact of memorandums of understandings between the United States and other countries on the collectible coin market here. The term of the past agreement with the Republic of Italy is nearly up and it’s now up for renewal. As you have worked closely with hobby stakeholders on this issue, I wanted to touch base with you on our podcast to hear firsthand about what’s going on with the renewal of this MOU and what further impacts you expect will be felt on our hobby.

Peter: Sure. Happy to discuss that. Yes, this is a renewal of a memorandum of understanding between the United States and Italy. The agreement is one that’s been ongoing actually since 2001. It goes to the State Department. There’s a process involved, which we probably don’t have to get into. But it gets filtered through something called the Cultural Property Advisory Committee, which is a committee of experts representing different disciplines including archaeology, museums, the trade, and members of the public, which makes recommendations to the Commissioner and the State Department, whether or not to enter into these agreements. They’re also supposed to make recommendations on if the agreement is agreed to be entered into, what types of items are put on the restricted list.

Back in 2011, the coin community actually fought against import restrictions at that time too, which had been first put in on Cypriot coins in 2007. There was a large lobbying effort in time including letters from people in Congress, including Paul Ryan who everyone’s heard of, asking that any agreement not be extended to coins. But unfortunately, when the agreement was entered into, import restrictions were put on certain coins from Italy. What the restrictions would relate to are basically the Greek issues of Southern Italy and Sicily, Etruscan coins, and then early Roman Republican coins, the ones before 2011 BC. So, that’s where we are right now.

In terms of what does that mean? Well, what it means is they’re more difficult to import into the United States. So, there’s an issue with how the import restrictions are actually applied and that’s, I think, where the concern comes in. If you look at what the statute says, it appears to me, and to a number of other commentators on this including someone who is one of the top State Department lawyers, that the way the restrictions are supposed to look or work is that they’re only supposed to be prospective and they relate to items that can be shown by the government to have been illicitly exported from the country for which restrictions were granted after the date of restrictions.

In other words, import restrictions were put in place on these coins in 2011. Under that view, the government would have to show that there was an illicit export from Italy after 2011 for the coins to be subject to detention, seizure, and forfeiture on entry in the United States. But unfortunately, that’s not the way they actually apply them. The way they actually apply them is as an embargo. So, they apply to any items on the designated list that come into the United States after the date of restriction. So, that’s much, much broader because it also applies to things that are outside of Italy after 2011. But it comes into effect just when it’s imported into the United States, so much, much broader.

There is a safe harbor. The safe harbor is that if you have proof that the item was out of Italy before the date of restrictions, then the item can still come in. You’d have to show this in paperwork. I guess collectors have been maybe not as attuned to this as they should be because to date, enforcement has been somewhat spotty. There are certainly situations where coins are detained and seized and repatriated under the statute, but it just hasn’t affected that many people. The people it does affect don’t tend to advertise the fact that their coins have been detained, seized, and repatriated to a foreign country. So, there’s probably a feeling in the collecting community, “Oh, this isn’t that big a deal.” But the problem with that way of thinking is that– I have gone to various things the State Department has held and they’ve noted that customs– whether or not this is true or not, but customs is supposedly working on a computerized system, which would use facial recognition technology or something of the sort that would make it easier for them to identify coins as being on the designated list and then they could act on them at that point.

So, if this computerized system ever comes along and is actually used, the enforcement could be much greater, and that would be very problematic for the coins that are not on the designated list. Those are the Roman Imperial coins and the Late Roman Republican coins because those coins are very– there are huge numbers of them extant. It’s very unlikely that they have much of a provenance trail or document trail that would be necessary for a legal import under the Safe Harbor provision I was discussing. It’s just because the value of these Roman Imperial coins are so low generally that they just don’t have much of a provenance. So, it could be problematic if the restrictions are extended to Roman Imperial and Late Roman Republican coins.

So, why are we concerned about that? We’re concerned about that because one of the representatives of the Archeological Institute of America which has been working on pushing these restrictions, said at a recent hearing regards to Turkey, which has not been decided as yet, that he thought that there should be import restrictions on Roman Imperial coins and argued that they should be restricted. So, we’re concerned that argument is going to be made again and so it needs to be contested.

The concern with the State Department is that the staff and the two services, the Cultural Property Advisory Committee, tend to be all archaeologists or people with archaeological background, so they tend to see things the way that the Archaeological Institute of America sees them rather than collectors see them.

Because of that, I think it’s important to have collectors get engaged on this issue. It only really takes about 5 or 10 minutes actually to do the comments. My blog, Cultural Property Observer, if you just go online and type in cultural property observer, you should find it, has a link, sort of a discussion of the whole issue, and then also a link to how to comment. I would certainly encourage people to comment. It literally takes five minutes or so to do it. My feeling is that the last thing we want to do is have not much interest in that because that’s sort of taken as acquiescence basically, in my view.

Charles: It occurs to me that I think it’s important to talk about coins in the way archeologists view them in regard to sites. Coins, we may think of these things as being rare. Of course, some of them are, but more typically, coins are mass-produced items and produced by the millions, even in antiquity. If you think about what a coin was to the people back then, it typically, if it was gold or silver, was an object that conveyed something of intrinsic value and traveled with people. In some ways, due to the nature of the way we move and the way societies develop and the way governments come and go, coins serve as a temporary form for this allotment of metal. As coins will travel through the region through trade, they would wind up in the far-flung reaches of the ancient world. Typically, they would become worn down over many years, they would be collected together, melted down and re-coined with different designs. And that process would repeat again and again and again.

A similar thing was carried out even in modern times in many countries, including the United States. In the United States, mints would receive bullion deposits usually in the form of foreign coin, and they would melt the coins down and strike new coins with the metal, or they would take old US coins and melt them down and create new coins with it. These things were never made with permanence in mind. They were not made to be cultural treasures either. Therefore, for collectors, revering these objects, collecting them, and studying them, and preserving them over a period of years, most of this material would have gone unpreserved, unstudied, and would remain more or less misunderstood today.

I will make a second more pointed statement. Archaeologists are not by trade numismatists. Their stake and understanding these objects has never rose to the level of numismatic interest. They do not understand or study the minting process as a numismatist would and they do not appreciate these objects the way that we do in this hobby. So, in some ways, it’s disheartening to think that the organization that has the most sway over how our hobby perpetuates is a group that has little to no interest or understanding on what we are about as a collecting community.

Peter: I would add to that, particularly on coins, it’s interesting the archaeological groups are pushing for restrictions on these coins, but if you look at the type of coins that are found at archaeological sites typically and what they do with them, again, it raises questions about what’s really going on here because what is typically found there are not sort of the silver and the higher value coins which are hoarded. Those can be found sometimes, but what they typically find are low-value bronze coins, which are single finds, heavily encrusted or corroded through exposure to the environment. When they find them, do they preserve them? Not really. Quite frankly, they use acids a lot of times just to try to identify them. So, they’re more interested in identifying them than actually preserving them.

There’s a been a big issue, and it’s one of the things that IAPN who I represented has a report on this, which we’ll submit for the MOU, that just the number of publications of coins from Italian finds is just not impressive. The ability of scholars to access things in museums is not very good. So, again, it raises the big question, why is the Archaeological Institute of America so interested in this? Is it really about preservation? Or is it really about control? And that’s the fundamental question.

Charles: Again, I would say, I know of no archaeological study of the dye state of Tetradrachms. This is all work that was carried out by numismatists and collectors over the centuries. And what books do archaeologists use when they excavate sites and find coins? Do they refer to their own archaeological-derived references? I doubt it. If they do, none of them would rise to the level of depth or specificity of the books that we have created for ourselves and often without profit. So, again, I say we created this wealth of knowledge that archaeologists take for granted, and so I take umbrage at the thought that our hobby is looked down upon by a discipline that, let’s face it, got its start by looting and ransacking historic sites, often in a colonial mindset. And that every five years, we have to go to battle with these organizations and we’ve come increasingly under attack for reasons that I feel are greatly misconstrued.

Peter: That’s correct. They will say that there need to be restrictions on these things because coins are important in dating archaeological sites. Well, that’s like the tail wagging the dog because the instances in which coins are actually that helpful in that are limited because, first of all, everything they find there isn’t necessarily helpful for dating an archaeological site, because it needs to be found in a sealed context basically. And that of the coins that they find at archeological sites is a very, very, very minor number of coins.

Then, on top of that, one thing that they don’t think about or don’t talk about is, I’m sure they know it, is that ancient coins are unlike what we deal with today because they tended to circulate for very, very, very long periods of time. There’s certainly instances of coins circulating for 100 plus years that are quite well known. So, it’s not that great a dating tool. Apparently, what’s a much better dating tool is pottery, broken pieces of pottery. The idea that you’re going to restrict thousands of American collectors’ ability to import these coins based upon the idea that coins may sometimes be helpful in dating archaeological sites seems to be a little bit much to me.

There are two other key issues, I hear, for the Italian coins is, number one, Italy itself has a huge internal market of coins. There are lots of collectors in Italy. They sell coins quite openly and freely including coins that are currently on the designated list and certainly Roman Imperial, Late Roman Republican coins as well. It’s crazy for Americans to be restricted when within Italy itself, there’s this broad collecting base there. What’s the point of this, really?

The other issue, interestingly, is that in terms of least the Roman Imperial coins and probably the Late Roman Republican coins too is, most of those coins are not actually found in Italy. In fact, the paper that IAPN is going to submit shows that of 2199 hoards that have been mapped on a major database, only 62, which is 2.8%, of these coins were found within the borders of the Republican of Italy itself. Now, this relates to Roman Imperial coins from Italian mint, so the Roman mint and some of the mints like Milan and Ravenna, etc. It just goes to show you that most of the Roman coins that were found are not found within Italy. When you think about it, it actually makes sense because Italy was not at the periphery of the Empire, and Most coins are actually found where legions are stationed. The legions were stationed in places like Bulgaria and the Balkans, the border with Germany, etc. So, that’s why there are not that many coins down in Italy itself.

The other issue out there is, of course, that there are coins they’ve omitted or not being reported, and that’s because Italy does not have a portable antiquities scheme like Britain does. We know quite a bit more of coin circulation in places like Britain because of the Portable Antiquities Scheme, which encourages people to report what they find. I think the archaeological community is going about this the wrong way rather than being prohibitionist, particularly in an area of coins where there’s a large internal market in Italy. They should instead be pushing Italy to set up something akin to the Portable Antiquities Scheme.

Charles: I think many collectors look at the UK as a model for how the governments can work reasonably with collectors and archaeologists to find an equitable middle ground. Do you agree that the UK’s model might be a better fit than what we see going on with the current MOU situation with the Republic of Italy and other countries?

Peter: The United States, certainly, they have these MOUs with these countries. It’s something we’ve been asking for pretty much consistently when we appear before the State Department body, is that they should put into these MOUs the requirement that these countries at least look at the idea of a portable antiquities scheme. And they’ve never done that. The problem is again that the staff appears to be just very, very in tune with the Archaeological Institute of America, etc., which is not supportive of this idea. It’s odd that it isn’t, because, in Britain itself, the archaeological community has, after some initial skepticism, has largely embraced the whole idea. Why do they embrace it, is because when these collectors or these metal detectorists are out finding things in the countryside, they sometimes happen upon sites that are significant, and this gets reported as part of the whole process. So, archaeologists learn about sites that they wouldn’t otherwise know about through this because they have people who are searching for coins finding these sites and then reporting to the authorities. So, it’s actually been a win-win over there because the people are finding coins or finding more significant things that get reported and things that are worth archaeologists’ time. That’s the irony here, because most coins are not really found on what we would term an archaeological site. Coin community is all for protecting archaeological sites, but this is just a little bit more than that. In situations like Italy, where there is a huge internal market, it even makes less sense.

Charles: Peter, how’s the size of the American ancient coin market in comparison to that of the ancient coin market in Europe? Is the American market significant?

Peter: I think we have to say it is a significant one, but it’s probably not the most significant. A while back, IAPN did a study about this and I just don’t remember recall the results. But I think it was something along the lines that maybe about the quarter of the market is in the United States, which is a significant amount, but the biggest part of the market obviously is in Europe.

Charles: These MOUs do not necessarily prohibit the sale of coins inside their countries of origin. But the problems begin to mount the moment you try to sell these coins across borders. I think there was an arrest, if I’m not wrong, a few years ago at a German coin show related to this issue and you yourself tried to import some low-value coins as a test case into the United States.

Peter: Yeah. You’re referring to the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild did a test case which, unfortunately– We wanted to test the regulations, but the courts wouldn’t actually get to the merits of the issue because they viewed it as a foreign policy issue. They basically washed their hands of it. There’s a debate about what course should and shouldn’t do, and in our view, the courts are there to make decisions, not just to defer to the executive branch, but that’s what they did in this case. They never actually rendered a ruling on the merits. They said, “Oh, it’s a foreign policy issue, so we’re going to not have a full judicial review of what the government did.” But they did see the coins in this case. We did what we were supposed to do. We weren’t trying to hide anything. We properly declared them, etc., and we actually told them that they were on a designated list. So, they weren’t aware of it at the time actually. Things can slip in probably fairly easily. I guess this is another underlying problem with the whole issue.

You want laws that do not hurt the person who tries to comply with them, but these kinds of regulations, who do they hurt? They hurt the people who tried to comply with them. People who want to smuggle things, it’s much easier to do for things, small items like coins than it is for other items. So, you’re really hurting the legitimate businesses that import things legally through the customs process, declare everything as they should. So, that’s who gets hurt by this. It doesn’t hurt people who want to try to smuggle things. Maybe– [crosstalk]

Charles: In your experience, have there been instances where industry-accepted provenance documentation has been challenged under the terms of these MOUs?

Peter: I don’t know 100%. I’ve heard secondhand that has happened on occasion. But that’s one of the issues. The enforcement has been spotty, but on occasion, my understanding is there have been things that the provenance has been contested. Certainly, I know it for a fact that it has happened with regard to more significant artifacts. In fact, Jim McAndrew, who was a former high-level customs official, is now in the private industry. He’s told stories about where people actually have the paperwork that you need to bring something in legally, so you have a certification and a declaration saying that this item was out of the country before the day of the restrictions, but custom is allowed to ask for more information and he’s had situations where they certainly do that, they just want more and more information.

They basically have all the cards because they have your item. What keeps them from holding everything is that they just go they have to have a process. They’re looking at lots of things. It’s not just coins and antiquities, think about all the things that come through customs.

Charles: I find it hard to believe that something as complex as this would be undertaken by the same government agents that for years, and still to this day, find it difficult to stop the mass importation of fake US bullion coins. The evidence belies the government’s claim as it pertains to collectible coins that it can effectively ascertain what should and shouldn’t be stopped as it enters the country. Ancient coins are a very specific type of collectible with many sites and many styles, most of which are not extraordinarily rare or valuable, but none would be familiar to a non-specialist. And that lack of experience, I feel, would give the government agent looking at the coin the false impression that anything he’s looking at might be rare or valuable.

Peter: Basically, what is supposed to happen, and in my understanding does happen in lots of situations, is that things get stopped and then they get flagged and then they get sent to for review by someone with more knowledge on the issue. A lot of times, they actually consult with academics who knows something about it. So, there is a process in place for them to actually look through things.

Charles: All right, Peter, what is your plan of action?

Peter: Our primary goal needs to be to keep Roman Imperial coins and Late Roman Republican coins off the list because when you think about the extent of the market and what the market is, that’s kind of the bread and butter. Most people who collect ancient coins don’t collect the high-value Greek coins, which are more likely to have a provenance, they collect Roman Imperial coins, $20 or $30 denarii, and that’s just not going to have the documentary history you’ll need for proper legal import under the Safe Harbor provisions of the Cultural Property Implementation Act. I think that has to be our primary goal, status quo basically, don’t extend, don’t use this as a reason to extend or expand current restrictions to include Roman Imperial and Late Roman Republican coins. I think that is our goal here.

Charles: Peter, thank you for stopping by, and best of luck as you fight the good fight.

Peter: Thank you. Appreciate it.


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