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The Global War Against Collectors of Ancient Coins


By Mike Markowitz for CoinWeek …..

By including antiquities within the political construction “cultural property” nationalist retentionist cultural policies often claim all antiquities from beneath, or on the soil of lands within their borders as cultural property and of importance to their national identity, and their citizens’ collective and individual identities.[1]

THERE IS A global war against colletors of ancient coins. And like so many wars in history, it is largely based on lies.

Rampant looting of archaeological sites around the world has created tragic gaps in our knowledge of human history. But the role of coins in this tragedy is routinely exaggerated to advance the political agendas of those who seek to define all ancient coins outside state control as “stolen property” and to criminalize the private ownership of antiquities.

Collectible antiquities include statues and figurines, weapons and armor, metal, glass and ceramic vessels, panels of sculptured stone, mosaics, painted frescoes, jewelry and many other kinds of artifacts[2]. Ancient coins represent a small and by no means the most valuable fraction of the global antiquities market.

Coins differ from most antiquities in two important respects: they were mass-produced, and they were meant to circulate. Because coins were mass-produced, thousands or even millions of very similar examples exist[3]. Between 330 and 323 BCE, Alexander the Great captured 180,000 talents of silver from the Persian Empire. That would make 270 million tetradrachms (a standard trade coin of about 17 grams.) Most were eventually melted down and recycled. Many others were lost, and millions remain buried, but today many reside in public and private collections both great and small. And since coins were a medium of exchange, they are often found far from their points of origin, sometimes thousands of miles away.

Ancient coin collecting has a long, honorable and scholarly history that stretches back to the Renaissance. Presidents Thomas Jefferson and John Quincy Adams collected ancient coins. The impending destruction of this hobby is merely collateral damage in a larger struggle pitting collectors, museums and the antiquities trade against academic archaeologists and powerful “cultural patrimony” bureaucrats, whose job security depends on stirring up public outrage over “looting”.

The archaeological lobby and its political allies wants you to believe that collecting ancient coins funds the tomb raiders and professional looters who destroy ancient sites. But collectible coins are seldom found in tombs, and rarely encountered on archaeological sites. Most ancient coins that reach the market are found in hoards. There were no banks in the ancient world; if you wanted to keep your money safe in times of unrest, you buried it in a pot, generally well away from buildings. If no one ever came back to reclaim it, it’s still there.

The 1970 UNESCO Convention

unescoThe opening salvo in the war against collectors was fired in 1970 in Paris, when the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) adopted a “Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property”, which came into force on 24 April 1972. In eight pages of text, the word “coin” occurs exactly once:

(e) antiquities more than one hundred years old, such as inscriptions, coins 
    and engraved seals.

In discussion of antiquities, the year 1970 is commonly taken as a benchmark. Objects documented as outside their country of origin before 1970 are considered legitimate; anything exported after that date is suspect, and many museums refuse to acquire or display such material.

The Cultural Property Advisory Committee

In 1983 the United States Congress enacted the Cultural Property Implementation Act (CPIA)[4], which ratified the UNESCO Convention with some reservations. Mark Feldman, the State Department’s Deputy Legal Adviser, told Congress that “this legislation and the ratification of the [1970 UNESCO] convention would have no immediate effect on coins and it is hard for me to imagine a case where we would need to deal with coins except in the most unusual circumstances.”

The Act established a Cultural Property Advisory Committee (CPAC) of 11 members appointed by the president and currently managed by the Department of State’s Cultural Heritage Center. The committee’s task is to “advise the president (or his designee) on appropriate U.S. action in response to requests from State Parties for assistance in protecting their cultural heritage[5].” Originally intended to reflect a balance of interests among museums, antiquity dealers, archaeologists and the “general public,” the committee has become a tool for academic archaeologists to determine US foreign policy regarding antiquities.

This policy is embodied in a series of Memoranda of Understanding (MoU’s) between the United States and a number of foreign countries. For ancient coins, the most significant current MoU’s are those with Bulgaria, China, Cyprus, Greece and Italy. There are separate import restrictions on antiquities from Iraq and Syria (but not Afghanistan, oddly enough[6]).

Back in 1983, the drafters of the CPIA did not anticipate that coins would be subject to import restrictions. But things have turned out quite differently.


bulgariaAccording to Section (I)(B)(7) of the United States’ MoU with Bulgaria, restrictions on the importation of Bulgarian coins include the following [emphasis by CoinWeek]:

a. Pre-monetary media of exchange including “arrow money,” bells, and bracelets. Approximate date: 13th century BC through 6th century BC.
b. Thracian and Hellenistic coins struck in gold, silver, and bronze by city-states and kingdoms that operated in the territory of the modern Bulgarian state. This designation includes official coinages of Greek-using city-states and kingdoms, Scythian and Celtic coinage, and local imitations of official issues. Also included are Greek coins from nearby regions that are found in Bulgaria. Approximate date: 6th century BC through the 1st century BC.
c. Roman provincial coins—Locally produced coins usually struck in bronze or copper at mints in the territory of the modern state of Bulgaria. May also be silver, silver plate, or gold. Approximate date: 1st century BC through the 4th century AD.
d. Coinage of the First and Second Bulgarian Empires and Byzantine Empire—Struck in gold, silver, and bronze by Bulgarian and Byzantine emperors at mints within the modern state of Bulgaria. Approximate date: 4th century AD through AD 1396.
e. Ottoman coins—Struck at mints within the modern state of Bulgaria. Approximate date: AD 1396 through AD 1750.


The MOU applies to coinage from its beginnings under the Zhou Dynasty (1,046-256 BCE) through the Tang Dynasty, which ended in 907 CE (Kleeberg, 19). Ironically such coins are widely bought and sold within China–one of the leading auction houses belongs to the Chinese Army.


cyprusThe MoU restricts “Coins of Cypriot type including, but not limited to:

(1) Issues of the ancient kingdoms of Amathus, Kition, Kourion, Idalion, Lapethos, Marion, Paphos, Soli, and Salamis dating from the end of the 6th century BC to 332 BC
(2) Issues of the Hellenistic period, such as those of Paphos, Salamis, and Kition from 332 BC to c. 30 BC.
(3) Provincial and local issues of the Roman period from c. 30 BC to 235 AD.


The MoU restricts:

Greek Silver Coins – This category includes the small denomination coins of the city-states of Aegina, Athens, and Corinth, and the Kingdom of Macedonia under Philip II and Alexander the Great. Such coins weigh less than approximately 10 grams and are known as obols, diobols, triobols, hemidrachms, and drachms. Also included are all denominations of coins struck by the other city-states, leagues, and kingdoms that operated in the territory of the modern Greek state (including the ancient territories of the Peloponnese, Central Greece, Thessaly, Epirus, Crete, and those parts of the territories of ancient Macedonia, Thrace and the Aegean islands that lie within the boundaries of the modern Greek state). Approximate date: 6th century BC. to late 1st century BC.

Roman Coins Struck in Greece – In silver and bronze, struck at Roman and Roman provincial mints that operated in the territory of the modern Greek state (including the ancient territories of the Peloponnese, Central Greece, Thessaly, Epirus, Crete, and those parts of the territories of ancient Macedonia, Thrace and the Aegean islands that lie within the boundaries of the modern Greek state). Approximate date: late 2nd century B.C. to 3rd century A.D.[8]


On January 15, 2016, the Memorandum of Understanding (“MOU”) with Italy was renewed five years. The following types are banned from entry into the United States:

1. Lumps of bronze (Aes Rude)—Irregular lumps of bronze used as an early medium of exchange in Italy from the 9th century BC.
“2. Bronze bars (
Ramo Secco and Aes Signatum)—Cast bronze bars (whole or cut) used as a media of exchange in central Italy and Etruria from the 5th century BC.
“3. Cast coins (
Aes Grave)—Cast bronze coins of Rome, Etruscan, and Italian cities from the 4th century BC.
“4. Struck coins—Struck coins of the Roman Republic and Etruscan cities produced in gold, silver, and bronze from the 3rd century BC to c. 211 BC, including the ‘‘Romano-Campanian’’ coinage.
“5. Struck colonial coinage—Struck bronze coins of Roman republican and early imperial colonies and municipia in Italy, Sicily, and Sardinia from the 3rd century BC to c. AD 37.
“6. Coins of the Greek cities—Coins of the Greek cities in the southern Italian peninsula and in Sicily (Magna Graecia), cast or struck in gold, silver, and bronze, from the late 6th century BC to c. 200 BC.

The Future

ancient_coins_traysEfforts to strangle the coin trade in red tape are not just an American problem. In July 2016 the German Parliament passed the new Cultural Property Protection Act (Kulturgutschutzgesetz), requiring that any antiquity offered for sale be accompanied by a valid export license from the country of origin. Germany has historically been a major player in the ancient coin trade, with many old and internationally respected auction houses. A last minute lobbying campaign by collectors secured an exemption for coins.

[C]oins are not considered archaeological items if they are available in a great number, if they do not really add to archaeological knowledge and are not placed under protection by any EU member country as customizable individual objects[10].”

In September 2016 a new threat emerged when a bill was introduced into the U.S. Senate (S.3449) to amend the federal Stolen Property Act (originally meant to criminalize interstate car theft). Based on the widely discredited claim that ISIS is funded by looted antiquities, this “Terrorism Art and Antiquity Revenue Prevention Act of 2016” would empower Federal agencies to seize and repatriate artifacts valued at as little as $50, on the assumption that they were illegally removed from Syria or Iraq[11].

Within the boundaries of Iraq and Syria (which did not exist as nations until the 20th century) were many mints of the Persian, Hellenistic, Parthian, Sasanian, Roman, Byzantine, Crusader and Islamic eras.

Every American with even a fraction of European ancestry is almost certainly descended from people who were, at some point, citizens — or foes — of the Roman Empire. Ancient history is not just someone else’s story. It is our story, and our precious “cultural patrimony”, too[12]!

It is ironic that so many archaeologically well-endowed regions are populated today by the descendants of the invaders who destroyed the very cultures whose remnants their modern governments claim as exclusively their own….Do these descendants have a more exclusive moral claim to the buried artifacts of earlier civilizations than the rest of humanity?[13]

Collectors concerned about these issues are invited to follow Peter Tompa’s excellent blog, Cultural Property Observer, and to consider joining the Ancient Coin Collector’s Guild, which lobbies against unreasonable restrictions on the coin trade.

* * *


[1] James Cuno, “Museums, Antiquities, Cultural Property and the US Legal Framework” in Fitz Gibbon (2005), p. 144

[2] When experts don’t know what something was for, an object is often catalogued as “ceremonial object”.

[3] Unlike modern machine made coins, no two ancient coins are never truly “identical” even when struck from the same dies.

[4] 19 U.S.C. § 2601

[5] https://eca.state.gov/cultural-heritage-center/cultural-property-protection/process-and-purpose/cultural-property-advisory

[6] https://eca.state.gov/files/bureau/chart-of-import-restrictions.pdf

[7] https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2014/01/16/2014-00615/import-restrictions-imposed-on-certain-archaeological-and-ecclesiastical-ethnological-material-from

[8] Federal Register: December 1, 2011 (Volume 76, Number 231) [Rules and Regulations] Page 74,691

[9] Federal Register: January 19, 2011 (Volume 76, Number 12) [Rules and Regulations] Pages 3,012-3,013

[10] http://www.coinsweekly.com/en/News/New-German-Cultural-Property-Protection-Act-into-effect/

[11] Co-sponsors of the legislation are Senators Thom Tillis (R-NC), Bill Cassidy (R-LA), Jeff Sessions (R-AL), Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), Chuck Grassley (R-IA), and Marco Rubio (R-FL). It is currently before the Senate Committee on Finance.

[12] Early American coinage closely followed classical models, and even today you cannot examine a US coin without reading a Latin inscription.

[13] Andre Emmerich, “Improving the Odds: Preservation Through Distribution,” in Fitz Gibbon (ed.) Who Owns the Past? (2005)


Adler, Andrew and Stephen Urice. “Resolving The Disjunction Between Cultural Property Policy And Law: A Call For Reform”, Rutgers Law Review (2011)

Beckmann, Martin. “Numismatics and the Antiquities Trade”, The Celator 12 (May 1998)

Bland, Roger. “The Treasure Act and Portable Antiquities Scheme in England and Wales”, ANS Magazine 10:4 (2011)

Convention On Cultural Property Implementation Act. Public Law 97-446 [H.R. 4566], 96 Stat. 2329, approved January 12, 1983

Cuno, James. Who Owns Antiquity? Museums and the Battle Over Our Ancient Heritage. Princeton (2008)

Fitz Gibbon, Kate (ed.) Who Owns the Past? Cultural Policy, Cultural Property and the Law. Rutgers (2005)

Kelly, Derek. “Illegal Tender: Antiquities Protection and U.S.Import Restrictions on Cypriot Coinage”, Brooklyn Journal of International Law 34 (2009)

Kleeberg, John M. “The Law and Practice Regarding Coin Finds: United States Laws Concerning Historic Shipwrecks”, INC, Compte rendu 54 (2007)

Nemeth, Erik. “One perspective on the security threat of antiquities trafficking”. Web. Accessed 10/27/2016

Renfrew, Colin. Loot, Legitimacy and Ownership. London. (2000)

Tompa, Peter K. “It Should Be About Conservation, Not Control: A Collector’s Perspective”, ANS Magazine 10:3 (2011)

UNESCO Convention On The Means Of Prohibiting And Preventing The Illicit Import, Export And Transfer Of Ownership Of Cultural Property (1970) [source: PDF]

Weiss, Arnold-Peter. “Caveat Emptor: A Guide to Responsible Coin Collecting”, ANS Magazine 11:3 (2012)

Witschonke, Rick. “Ancient Coins and the Cultural Property Debate”, ANS Magazine 10:2 (2011)

Ancient Cypriot Coins Currently Available on eBay


Mike Markowitz
Mike Markowitz
Mike Markowitz is a member of the Ancient Numismatic Society of Washington. He has been a serious collector of ancient coins since 1993. He is a wargame designer, historian, and defense analyst. He has degrees in History from the University of Rochester, New York, and Social Ecology from the University of California, Irvine. Born in New York City, he lives in Fairfax, Virginia.

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  1. A very well argued article. The State in this case wants to own everything and in this case it results in creating a cultural desert.


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