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Renewal of Italian MOU Threatens Ability to Collect Ancient Roman Imperial Coins

Renewal of Italian MOU Threatens Ability to Collect Ancient Roman Imperial Coins

By Hubert Walker for CoinWeek ….

On June 8, 2020, the State Department of the United States announced a proposal to extend its Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Italy. The MoU, which was originally agreed to in 2001 and augmented every five years since, establishes restrictions on imports of certain artifacts of cultural importance from Italy to the United States.

But while this sounds like a reasonable approach to the protection of cultural heritage, members of the archaeological community have in recent years used these Memoranda to impinge upon–if not prohibit outright–the private buying and selling of coins, especially ancient coins.

This has major implications for collectors in the U.S., and the agreement with Italy stands to impact collectors of ancient Roman coins most of all. With each renewal (2006, 2011, 2016), additional categories of ancient coins that might be found within the borders of Italy have been banned from importation. Now, with the slated 2021 renewal, the archaeological lobby seeks to add restrictions on Roman Imperial coinage.

In other words, coin collectors in the United States may soon find it too difficult or too costly to continue collecting.

Lawyer and numismatic advocate Peter Tompa, of the blog Cultural Property Observer, has been fighting the increasingly strict restrictions the State Department has been imposing on coin collectors for over a decade. In 2009, Tompa and the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild (ACCG) started a legal battle involving the import of ancient coins designed to upend similar MoUs with Cyprus and China. The case dragged on for over nine years, with the courts eventually siding against Tompa and the ACCG. In 2017, CoinWeek wrote an eye-opening synopsis of the case that shows what kind of legal quagmire fighting an entrenched MoU regime can be.

Tompa recently wrote an article pleading with collectors to get involved and help save their hobby before it is too late. The easiest way would be to leave a comment on www.regulations.gov

Once you’re on regulations.gov, “[E]nter the docket [DOS-2020-0022] and follow the prompts to submit your comments.” The public comment period ends at 11:59 pm on July 8, 2020.

CoinWeek Editor Charles Morgan recently discussed the situation with Mr. Tompa and how it threatens the ability of Americans to collect Roman Imperial coins for this week’s episode of the CoinWeek Podcast.

What is an MoU?

In 1970 at a meeting in Paris, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization–better known as UNESCO–adopted the “Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property”.

You may be familiar with the fact that the year 1970 is something of a cutoff date when it comes to provenance. Coins that were already outside their countries of origin before 1970 are fair game, while coins exported after 1970 are subject to legal scrutiny. The UNESCO convention is why.

Thirteen years later, a modified version of the convention became U.S. law with the passage of the Cultural Property Implementation Act (CPIA). The Act created the Cultural Property Advisory Committee (CPAC), the purpose of which is to advise the president as to how the United States should cooperate with other nations to safegaurd their cultural heritage. A Memorandum of Understanding (MoU), which is an official agreement between the U.S. and another country, implements these recommendations.

When it addressed Congress in 1983, the State Department was quite explicit that, according to the CPIA, MoUs would not affect the buying and selling of coins except under the “most unusual circumstances”.

Unfortunately, the United States Government has–in cooperation with foreign governments, many of which have dubious records of protecting their own cultural heritage–gotten increasingly bolder with its violations of the law in recent years.

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Hubert Walker
Hubert Walker
Hubert Walker has served as the Assistant Editor of CoinWeek.com since 2015. Along with co-author Charles Morgan, he has written for CoinWeek since 2012, as well as the monthly column "Market Whimsy" for The Numismatist and the book 100 Greatest Modern World Coins (2020) for Whitman Publishing.

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