Public Asked to Comment on the Proposed Renewal of the MOU with Greece

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by Peter K. Tompa

March 31, 2016 – The United States Department of State has proposed a renewal of its current Memorandum of Understanding (“MOU”) with the Hellenic Republic for another five (5) years. Once again, individuals will be afforded an opportunity to comment on whether the MOU should be extended. Coin collectors in particular should comment to help protect the current exemption for ancient trade coins struck in Greece. Such coins – which include Athenian Tetradrachms, Corinthian Staters and Tetradrachms and gold coins of Philip and Alexander the Great – are very popular with collectors. 

Further official information about a May 24, 2016 Cultural Property Advisory Committee meeting and how to comment by the May 9, 2016 deadline can be found here

A.) Background For Coin Collectors

Current import restrictions encompass coins the State Department evidently believes are primarily found in Greece.  These coin types are described as follows:
Coins – Many of the mints of the listed coins can be found in B.V. Head, Historia Numorum: A Manual of Greek Numismatics (London, 1911) and C. M. Kraay, Archaic and Classical Greek Coins (London, 1976). Many of the Roman provincial mints in Greece are listed in A. Burnett et al., Roman Provincial Coinage I: From the Death of Caesar to the Death of Vitellius (44 BC-AD 69) (London, 1992) and id., Roman Provincial Coinage II: From Vespasian to Domitian (AD 69-96) (London, 1999). 

a. Greek Bronze Coins – Struck by city-states, leagues, and kingdoms that operated in 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 lay within the boundaries of the modern Greek state). Approximate date: 5th century B.C. to late 1st century B.C.

b. 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 B.C. to late 1st century B.C.

c. 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.

Under current Customs procedures, the above types can only be imported into the United States with: (a) an export certificate issued by Greece; (b) “satisfactory evidence” demonstrating that the coins were exported from or were outside of Greece at least 10 years prior to importation into the U.S.; or (c) “satisfactory evidence” demonstrating that the coins were exported from or were outside of Greece before restrictions were announced on December 2, 2011. What constitutes “satisfactory evidence” is ultimately left to the discretion of Customs, but usually takes the form of a declaration by the importer and a statement by the consigner. 

These current restrictions do not extend to Greek trade coins – like Athenian Tetradrachms, Corinthian Staters, and larger denomination silver and gold coins of Philip and Alexander the Great – that are extremely popular with collectors. However, collectors cannot afford to take this for granted. We simply cannot assume that the Greek cultural bureaucracy and its allies in the archaeological lobby – who actively oppose private collecting – won’t press for “more” this time around. Accordingly, if one feels strongly about their continued ability to collect such coins, they should comment on the website. Why? Because silence will only be spun as acquiesce. So, serious collectors should oppose this renewal or its expansion as unnecessary and detrimental to the appreciation of Greek culture and the people to people contacts collecting brings.

B.) The Law

The Cultural Property Implementation Act (“CPIA”) contains significant procedural and substantive constraints on the executive authority to impose import restrictions on cultural goods. Restrictions at issue here may only be applied to archaeological artifacts of “cultural significance” “first discovered within” and “subject to the export control” of a specific UNESCO State Party. They must be part of a “concerted international response” of other market nations, and can only be applied after less onerous “self-help” measures are tried. They must also be consistent with the general interest of the international community in the interchange of cultural property among nations for scientific, cultural, and educational purposes. Renewals of MOUs are to be judged under the same standards.

The Cultural Property Advisory Committee (“CPAC”) is to provide the executive with useful advice about this process. The CPIA contemplates that CPAC is to recommend whether import restrictions are appropriate as a general matter and also specifically whether they should be placed on particular types of cultural goods. In the past, CPAC has recommended against import restrictions on coins. Initially those recommendations were followed, but beginning with the renewal of Cypriot import restrictions in 2007, this has changed. Now, there are restrictions on coins made in Cyprus, China, Italy, Greece and Bulgaria and it’s likely restrictions on at least some Egyptian and Syrian coins will follow.

Import restrictions make it impossible for Americans to legally import collectors’ coins widely and legally available worldwide. Foreign sellers are typically unwilling or unable to certify the coin in question (which can retail as little as 1 dollar) left a specific UNESCO State Party before restrictions were imposed as required by the CPIA and U.S. Customs and Border Protection rules. Restrictions have drastically limited Americans’ abilities to purchase historical coins from abroad and have negatively impacted the cultural understanding and people to people contacts collecting fosters.

C. The Request

U.S. collectors, museums and the small businesses of the numismatic and antiquities trade have had to endure an embargo on unprovenanced Greek artifacts for some 5 years. Another renewal will make that 10 years.

Such import restrictions were never meant to be permanent. Rather, they were aimed cutting market demand to allow time for a source country to get its own house in order.
While concerns about looting in Greece remain, what is far more serious is the Greek budget crisis and its effect on funding for cultural heritage. Of course, budget shortfalls have been made worse because Greece’s inefficient (and some say corrupt) cultural bureaucracy simply can’t cope. 

More import restrictions won’t help. Instead, what Greece needs are new approaches to cultural heritage that engage local people to help protect important sites and which encourage commerce in common artifacts like ancient coins. 

Enough is enough. It’s time to scrap current import restrictions and instead promote real cultural cooperation rather than more confrontation. This is particularly true for common artifacts like ancient coins. It has never made sense to place restrictions on ancient coins, particularly when there is large, open and legal internal market for the exact same sort of coins within the EU and Greece itself allows imports of ancient coins for its own collectors.

What You Can Do

Admittedly, CPAC – packed as it is these days with ardent supporters of the archaeological lobby – seems to be little more than a rubber stamp. Still, to remain silent is to give the cultural bureaucrats and archaeologists with an ax to grind against collectors exactly what they want – the claim that any renewal will not be controversial.

So, to submit comments electronically, go to the Federal eRulemaking Portal, enter the Docket No. DOS-2016-0009, and follow the prompts to submit a comment. For a direct link to comment, please click here

Please note comments may be posted only UNTIL MAY 9, 2016 at 11:59 PM.

Please also note comments submitted in electronic form are not private. They will be posted on the mentioned site. Because the comments cannot be edited to remove any identifying or contact information, the Department of State cautions against including any information in an electronic submission that one does not want publicly disclosed (including trade secrets and commercial or financial information that is privileged or confidential pursuant to 19 U.S.C. 2605(i)(1)).

What should you say? Provide a brief, polite explanation about why the renewal should be denied or limited. Consider the following points:

  • The governing statute requires that restrictions only be applied on artifacts “first discovered in Greece.” But hoard evidence demonstrates that Greek coins circulated extensively outside the confines of the Modern Greek nation state. The State Department and U.S. Customs have already recognized this fact for higher denomination coins. At a minimum, this finding should be preserved. 
  • The governing statute requires restrictions only be placed on artifacts of “cultural significance.” But coins – which exist in many multiples – do not meet that particular criteria.
  • The governing statute requires that less drastic remedies be tried before import restrictions. But Greece has not tried systems akin the UK Treasure Act before seeking restrictions.
  • The governing statute requires that restrictions be consistent with the interests of the international community in cultural exchanges. But restrictions diminish the ability of American collectors (particularly Greek Americans) to appreciate Greek culture and greatly limit people to people contacts with other collectors in Europe.
  • Restrictions are unfair and discriminatory to Americans. Collectors in the EU – including Greece – have no similar limitations on their ability to import ancient coins.
  • The Greek people are suffering from severe economic problems. Commerce in common artifacts like coins that are available for sale throughout Europe should be encouraged. 

Finally, you don’t have to be an American citizen to comment – you just need to be concerned enough to spend twenty or so minutes to express your views on-line. Comments from collectors from Greece are particularly welcome!

A shortened version of this call for comments, and more, can be found in Peter Tompa’s blog on the Cultural Property Observer.

For more information about the Cultural Property Advisory Committee, please click here.

Here you can read more about the Cultural Property Implementation Act.

Peter K. Tompa works with Bailey & Ehrenberg PLLC, Washington, D.C. His practice includes providing legal advice and counselling in matters related to trade in cultural artifacts.