By Hubert Walker for CoinWeek ….
If the March 4 arrests of coin collectors and a coin dealer at the 50th Numismata in Munich are any indication, collectors in the United States have reason to fear that Germany’s new Cultural Property Protection law may live down to the predictions of those who signed last year’s petition opposing it.
On the first day of the 50th Numismata coin show in Munich, over 30 police officers, including Kunstfahnder (“art investigators” or “art detectives”) from the Bavarian State Police and a cultural expert from the Hessian State Police, arrested four coin collectors outside the exhibit halls at the MOC Veranstaltungscenter and one dealer inside the venue on suspicion of the illicit sale of illegally obtained antiquities and coins. The collectors, a 49-year-old man from Bulgaria and three individuals from Serbia in their thirties and forties, were detained because they were unable to provide evidence of the legally acceptable procurement of the ancient coins in their possession, some of which they appear to have hidden. According to authorities, the police seized approximately €1,600 worth of coins from the men. This amounts to a value of about $1,696 USD at the time of publication.
The collectors were soon released though charges are pending in all five cases.
A 54-year-old Afghani coin dealer from near Copenhagen in Denmark was the apparent target of the bust. At his booth at the show, the dealer had a stock of around 6,000 coins, primarily from Afghanistan, Iran, and India. He was also selling an array of other antiquities, with approximately 1,000 archaeological and historical objects at hand. Altogether, police put a value of more than €50,000 (about $53,000 USD) on the items. Being unable to prove the legal provenance of his stock, the dealer was arrested and his inventory seized. He was still in police custody at the time of writing.
Cultural Property Protection Act of 2016
So what did the five men do wrong? They ran afoul of the Cultural Property Protection Act of 2016, a law that has been in effect since August of last year but until now this particular aspect of it has not been enforced. The law requires a pedigree or provenance that extends a minimum of 20 years back for “objects of cultural importance” and it requires the granting of an export license for objects more than 70 years old that are worth more than €300,000 ($31,800).
The intent of these restrictions is two-fold.
By demanding a provenance for “culturally important” objects, the law seeks to prevent the looting of antiquities from war-torn and otherwise vulnerable parts of the world–the illegal trade and cultural atrocities committed by ISIS being the immediate but by no means sole justification for the bill–by destroying the market for them in Germany. Which would have a cascading effect on the European market for such objects since Germany (especially Berlin) is a vital hub of the antiquities trade.
And by requiring an export license, the law is intended to make sure that art of “national significance” does not leave Germany. It also makes demands upon dealers who are importing such goods from other countries.
But while most everyone would agree that a nation’s cultural heritage must be protected and respected, many who work and take part in the numismatic trade realize that the law also threatens to hurt legal businesses. At best, the Cultural Property Protection Act was seen as a flawed bill rushed through the German Bundestag (lower house) without proper discussion or consultation with those who, like coin dealers and collectors of ancient coins, might be adversely affected. At worst, collectors and dealers saw an ideologically motivated bureaucracy infiltrated by academic archaeologists who do not hide their antipathy towards collectors and other “amateurs” who, they believe, do more harm than good to the world’s cultural heritage.
Early drafts of the bill were criticized in the media because legislators had failed to involve trade experts in the process. Members of the antiquities trade, along with the German Numismatic Society, demanded a role for themselves in the law’s creation by writing to the Federal Foreign Minister in 2014, but they were not even invited to a hearing of the bill on April 22, 2015. Publication of the minutes from the hearing was delayed for months.
But other voices of disagreement were heard nonetheless. When the draft version of the bill was deemed too vague in regards to its impact on legitimate antiquities dealers, an amended version that was supposed to clarify certain points was approved by the Bundestag on June 23, 2016. The primary force behind the bill, Monika Grütters, the Minister of State for Culture and Media, said that the amended act now included criteria for which objects should be listed in a register of cultural property (age, value, etc.).
However, some members of the Bundestag complained about how the procedure for discussion had been managed, with some claiming that they were first given a copy of the amended bill the afternoon before the vote and so did not have adequate time to properly review the text, let alone have a fruitful discussion of its contents.
The Bundesrat, or upper house of the bicameral federal government, passed the law on July 8, the very last day of state business before the summer recess. Critics accuse Madame Grütters of rushing the bill through both houses without the necessary vetting in order to pass it during that legislative session.
Strong opposition had developed against the bill well before it was finally enacted. German numismatists, dealers and coin collectors feared what could happen to their native industry. Vincent Geerling, Chairman of the International Association of Dealers on Ancient Art (IADAA), called the law’s provisions the “world’s strictest import/export restrictions on cultural objects”. The IADAA is part of the 20-member Alliance for Cultural Property Protection (AACPP), which lobbied against the bill, arguing that the law would bring a real end to the trade in “non-European art objects”.
This would happen for various reasons, each of which alone could have a chilling effect on business.
First and foremost is the difficulty in obtaining provenance for collectible coins in most instances. The number of coins already in Europe before the law went into effect is greater than the number that infiltrates the market from the very sites said to be threatened at any given moment around the world. A pedigree comprehensive enough to meet the new legal burden of proof is just not something that most collectors can provide, especially for more common issues. And why would they be able to? There was no incentive to do so in previous generations.
And researching most pedigrees may be next to impossible (again, especially for common pieces). The European trade in ancient coins is at least as old as the Renaissance. Coin dealer Alfredo De La Fe of Imperial Coins and Artifacts in New York City states that, in his experience, fewer than one in 1,000 ancient coins still carries an associated pedigree over the last 500 years of coin collecting. He also makes the point that photographs and catalogs, which might have been used to identify coins as belonging to a specific collection, were not usually taken or provided for the countless number of private sales that have taken place over the centuries. Coin cleaning interferes with identification as well.
One can easily imagine a scenario where the heirs of a lifelong coin collector, who did not share their relative’s interests and have no experience with the numismatic marketplace, find themselves in legal and financial trouble as they attempt to liquidate the estate.
Another aspect of the import/export regulations puts archaeological asset rules into effect, meaning that “archaeological” objects (“objects found in soil or water”) automatically require an export license from the country of origin.
It should also be mentioned that the law gives the power to issue relevant export licenses to authorities in the 16 federal German states – even though it has yet to be determined who, exactly, those authorities will be. Such burgeoning bureaucracy creates an additional cost burden on the state and is loathe to relinquish whatever power it yields once entrenched. Also, according to pro-collector advocates who oppose the new law (at least as currently written), the state tends to overestimate the monetary value of suspect coins and the size and distribution of the black market in illicit antiquities
Perhaps the most notable manifestation of opposition to the law came in the form of an online petition started by Dr. Ursula Kampmann of CoinsWeekly.com. Noting how the coin trade was left out of participation and not consulted by legislators, the petition demanded that the bill not be applied retroactively to coins imported before the law was enacted and that the burden of proof not be reversed and collectors and dealers not considered “guilty until proven innocent”. It also demanded a “clear definition” of the term “national cultural heritage” (which the amended version of the bill tried to address) and the “free movement” of goods across the European Union, “unimpaired by bureaucratic obstacles”.
Why Should You Care?
Already, according to Geerling, large collections are being moved out of Germany in case their owners decide to sell in the future. Dealers and collectors in other fields, such as Asian antiquities, are anxious about what a similar law could do to their industries and are preparing in a likewise manner. And ironically, the ability of collectors–who have with their personal activities preserved cultural heritage for hundreds of years–to continue to do so is impeded and restrained.
In an October 2016 article for CoinWeek, Ancient coin expert Mike Markowitz laid out the case for the reality of a “global war” on ancient coin collectors. Like most collectors, he is sympathetic to the concerns of archaeologists about the looting of priceless archaeological sites, but he points out how much of the argument against collecting these coins is not grounded in fact.
For one thing, ancient coins are only a minor part of the world antiquities market. For another, coins were mass produced and traveling far from their places of origin was a logical outgrowth of their function.
Also, contrary to popular myth, coins are not often found in tombs and graves, and coins are not usually dug up at archaeological sites to begin with; most on the market were found in hoards.
Yet the battle is intense and has become more partisan in recent years as academics and bureaucrats have gained power in various executive bodies around the globe.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) adopted the “Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property” in 1970 in Paris, France. The eight-page document uses the word “coin” only once.
1970, by the way, was also the year of the inaugural Numismata coin show.
The United States ratified a modified version of the UNESCO Convention in 1983 with the Cultural Property Implementation Act (CPIA). The CPIA created the presidentially appointed Cultural Property Advisory Committee (CPAC) to advise the president regarding how the U.S. would work with other nations to protect their cultural heritage; these policies are implemented through Memoranda of Understanding (MoU’s).
And even though the State Department expressly told Congress in 1983 that coins would not be affected except under the “most unusual circumstances”, a trend toward tighter and more numerous restrictions on ancient coins has accelerated in recent years.
As it has around the world.
So as four collectors and one coin dealer in Germany learn their fate under the new cultural property regime, CoinWeek will keep you posted about further developments.
* * *
Ancient Roman Gold Coins Currently Available on eBay