By Wayne Sayles – Ancient Coin Collecting Blog ………..

The public session of the Cultural Property Advisory Committee hearing to consider a potential Memorandum of Understanding with Egypt (June 2nd) has drawn considerable interest among the regular pontificators on both sides of the issue.  Being one of that group, not necessarily by choice, we probably ought to add a few comments here about the experience.

ptolemaic_egypt_coinsThis was the seventh CPAC hearing that I have personally presented oral comments before, and the eighth hearing in which the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild has done so.  Kerry Wetterstrom represented the ACCG at the Bulgarian MOU hearing.  At virtually every hearing, the ACCG position has been that the guild took no stand on the MOU itself, but argued that coins should not be included in any restrictions consequently imposed.  Those arguments have consistently centered on points of law.

The Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act (1983) is the governing statute under which CPAC is convened and empowered.  Among other protections for collectors and the trade, that act specifically states in words of very plain meaning that import restrictions may only be imposed on an object that is “first discovered within, and is subject to export control by, the [requesting] State Party.”  The law also states very clearly that only objects of cultural significance may be considered for import restrictions.

Several of these protections have been ignored in regard to ancient coins where broad-based restrictions have been applied as the default response in country after country.  This, ACCG maintains, is “Extralegal” and contrary to the letter and intent of law.  That belief is the basis of the ongoing test case in federal court where ACCG has challenged the actions of US State Department and Customs and Border Protection.

In 2007, when ACCG first commented on a CPAC hearing, there was already a precedent relating to coins.  Although earlier Memorandums of Understanding had imposed import restrictions on other categories of antiquities, coins had always been exempted.  During the CPAC deliberations over the request from Cyprus in that year, the committee discussed the question of whether coins ought to be included and again voted in favor of exemption.

Breaking with tradition, State Department did not follow that guidance of CPAC and included coins in the MOU in spite of the CPAC recommendation.  Since that action, every MOU where ancient coins were a consideration (any country where they were produced) has resulted in import restrictions on coins.  Before long, the prevailing attitude among many interested parties was that it was a foregone and inescapable conclusion.  In fact, the discussion about coins rarely consumed very much of the time allowed for public comment.  The time alloted for each presenter being only five minutes, and followup questions by committee members typically being very limited in scope, coins were not a prominent part of the public discussion.

The CPAC hearing of Egypt’s recent request was clearly different.  Peter Tompa has posted a useful summary here.  Although the argument for exempting coins was made by only two of the eleven presenters of oral comments (Tompa and Sayles), the discussion about coins was much wider and essentially dominated the hearing.  Carmen Arnold-Biucchi supported inclusion of coins, but indicated restrictions should only be applied to “looted” coins.  Several representatives of the archaeological community expressed their view that coins needed to be included in the MOU.

The general interest in coins far exceeded that of any prior CPAC hearing and was a welcome, if not rare, opportunity to engage in legitimate dialogue.  The committee members asked many probing and insightful questions about coins.  The nature of these questions was in many cases indicative of some concerns about coins being included in the MOU.  Between questions posed to Peter Tompa and myself after our brief presentations, the committee kept us engaged for nearly 30 minutes.

Many members of the committee had questions, and often more than one.  Some questions were raised about mandatory registration, but until there is a fair and rational way to deal with the “orphans”, widespread collector support is impossible.  Commendably, the Chair allowed ample time for detailed responses.  That has to be a record for numismatic consideration in a public CPAC hearing.  It was a refreshing change and leaves some room for optimism that CPAC will carefully consider the elements of law that guide their deliberations.