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Smuggling and Cyprus

By Wayne SaylesAncient Coin Collecting …..

I’m shocked!

For years, we’ve been told by “experts” that the market for looted coins is in America, and now we find what seems to be evidence of serious smuggling of coins into Cyprus of all places. Although the news report does not specify the exact nature of the coins in question, archaeologists have repeatedly told us that all ancient coins found in an archaeological context are priceless objects. And, they make the presumption that any coin lacking provenance is from an archaeological context.

If a woman from Cyprus has been detained for allegedly trying to smuggle a “large number” of these priceless objects out of Syria, what must be going on at all the other borders in the region? Smugglers are like the ubiquitous copperhead snakes we share the Ozarks with. Where you find one, you will generally find another. One has to wonder if there might actually be more ancient coins flowing into than out of Cyprus?

Does this mean that ancient coins illegally spirited from Syria (and probably other places) into Cyprus will be considered Cypriot patrimony and subject to U.S. laws like the National Stolen Property Act even though they may not be coins of Cypriot type? If so, would any confiscated coins of this nature be returned to Cyprus?

What about Cypriot coins that traveled to nearby Syria in trade during antiquity and have been recently excavated there? Are those coins that have been illegally returned to their place of manufacture, but first found in another country, now Cypriot patrimony? How will anyone, including local Cypriots, know which coins (of any type) came out of the ground in Cyprus and which coins came out of the ground in Syria?

I think this revelation of international smuggling between Syria and Cyprus turns the whole analysis presented by Dr. Nathan Elkins at the recent CPAC hearing on its head. Are local “finds” in Cyprus (even of Cypriot coin types) really from Cyprus or did somebody smuggle them into Cyprus and then report them so they could be collected legally within Cyprus?

Of course, Dr. Elkins might argue that the coins “first found” in Cyprus have provenance, that holy sanction so revered by archaeologists. That is not necessarily the case. There have been more than a few documented cases of archaeologists salting their own excavations with objects from elsewhere just to create a “stir” of academic interest.

In one famous case, coin forgers salted an official archaeological dig in Bulgaria with examples of their work and then cited the excavation reports as evidence that the coins were genuine—subsequently dumping thousands of them onto the collector market. Are some of the coins from Cypriot digs really from Syria? Were the coins in the vaunted collection of the Bank of Cyprus Cultural Foundation legally exported from their archaeological findspot in other nationalist countries? Wouldn’t it be interesting if this Cypriot woman arrested in Syria is actually an archaeologist working in Cyprus?

Oh my, the embarrassment would be tremendous — but somehow I don’t think it would change the attitude at the U.S. State Department one iota.

I hate to denigrate those archaeologists who work hard and share their discoveries selflessly with the world outside of academia. They have always been and truly are friends of society. Some of their brethren, who cast stones at every possible opportunity, are a scourge and a disgrace to what historically is a noble profession and will undoubtedly seek some way to distort and turn this recent news report into a condemnation of private collecting and independent scholarship–which remain entirely legitimate activities in the USA.

Wayne Sayles
Wayne Sayles
Retiring in 1982 from the U.S. Air Force, Wayne earned a MA degree in Art History at the Univ. of Wisconsin. In 1986, he founded The Celator — a monthly journal about ancient coins. He co-authored "Turkoman Figural Bronze Coins and Their Iconography" (2 vols.) and wrote the six vol. series "Ancient Coin Collecting" (3 are in expanded 2nd ed.), the monograph "Classical Deception" and the exhibition catalogue for the Griner collection of ancient coins at Ball State University. He wrote the "Coin Collecting" article and revised the main "Coins" article for Encyclopaedia Britannica. Wayne is a Life Fellow of the ANS; Fellow of the RNS (London); Life Member of the Hellenic Numismatic Society (Athens); Life Member of AINS; and member of numerous other numismatic organizations including the American Numismatic Association and the Numismatic Literary Guild. He is the founder and current Executive Director of the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild, has lectured extensively, written more than 200 articles about ancient coinage, and is a recipient of the "Numismatic Ambassador" award from Krause Publications. He is a biographee in Marquis, "Who's Who in America" and in "Who's Who in the World".

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