Cultural Property Advisory Committee Reviews Italian Request for Import Restrictions
On October 12, 1999, the US State Department's Cultural Property Advisory Committee met in public session on Italy's request for import restrictions on a wide variety of artifacts dating from the 5th millennium BC to the 5th c. AD
Peter K. Tompa, The Celator |
December 01, 1999
On October 12, 1999, the US State Department's Cultural Property Advisory Committee met in public session on Italy's request for import restrictions on a wide variety of artifacts dating from the 5th millennium BC to the 5th c. AD, including ancient Greek and Roman coins. The Cultural Property Advisory Committee is composed of experts who advise the US President on the Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act which implements the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. The Committee includes representatives of museums, experts in archeology, anthropology, ethnology, or related fields, experts in the international sale of cultural property, and members of the general public.
Approximately 45 interested parties attended this public meeting. This is evidently the largest group to ever attend such a session. This group included representatives from the collecting public, antiquities dealers, museums and archeologists. There was also a representative of the Italian Embassy present as well as a number of members of the news media. Twelve individuals addressed the Committee with comments. The Committee has 150 days to report its recommendations for import restrictions. The meeting itself took almost 5 hours, well beyond the 2 hours allotted for public comment.
Archeologists acted as the main proponents of import restrictions. They argued collecting ancient artifacts without a provenance encourages the pillage of archeological sites. For that reason, they support requiring importers of such artifacts to disclose the provenance of any antiquity brought into the United States. If the importer cannot demonstrate that the article was legally excavated and exported from Italy or show conclusively that it originated from some other country, they believe that US Customs should seize the item if it could have come from the Italian soil.
The collecting public and the antiquities dealers argued against the imposition of any import restrictions. Speakers espousing this view emphasized that antiquities have been avidly collected for hundreds of years. Hence, it is unreasonable to assume that all antiquities without a provenance were looted recently from Italy. Some of the speakers also attacked Italian antiquities law that dates from the Mussolini era. Under that law, all antiquities found in Italian soil are considered state property. Others questioned Italy's own handling of its cultural wealth. These speakers charged that many of Italy's archeological treasures are destroyed each year due to the ambivalence of the Italian authorities.
Jerome Eisneberg of Royal Athena Galleries showed slides of Italian auction catalogues selling archeological items. He indicated that Italy allows its own citizens to collect antiquities without necessarily conditioning sales on a demonstration of provenance. Therefore, he argued that it would be patently unfair to require importers of such items into the United States to prove more than their Italian counterparts.
Arielle Kozloff, a gallery owner, and Rena Moulopoulos, Sotheby's Worldwide Director of Compliance, both made particularly eloquent statements. Ms. Kozloff charged that Italy was gripped with "Millennium Fever." She questioned the rights of the modern nation state of Italy to the cultural objects of the entire Roman Empire which encompassed most of Europe, parts of Africa, and parts of the Middle East. She also charged that there is a "dirty little secret" that archeologists are afraid to speak against the claims of host governments for fear of losing permits to excavate. Ms. Moulopoulos indicated that Sotheby's always seeks to confirm the provenance of items it auctions; however, most consignors do not want the provenance to be published due to concerns about confidentiality. For example, if the identity of the consignor became known, that individual might become subject to theft or harassment from other dealers seeking items, or some might suspect the consignor is facing financial hardship or divorce.
While the museum community is divided on the issue, the only museum representative that spoke, Marion True, agreed that museums should research provenance before procuring objects for their collections. Ms. True is the curator for antiquities at the Getty Museum. The Getty's acquisitions policy for classical antiquities evidently states that the museum will only purchase items from established, well-documented (i.e., published) collections.
Four individuals touched on the issue of whether import restrictions should apply to ancient coins. Peter Tompa spoke first. He indicated that ancient coins should not be restricted because they simply are not items of "significantly rare archeological stature" as required by the Cultural Property Statute. In support of this proposition, he indicated that thousands of types were issued throughout the Mediterranean region in antiquity and many hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of individual coins remain extant. He also indicated that museums have numerous examples already in their collections. He also noted that collecting coins is not a direct threat to archeology as most coins in collectible condition are found in hoards outside the archeological stratum. He indicated that the large number of coins available and the long history of collecting them make it impossible for a dealer or collector to ascertain the provenance of a particular coin.
In support of these comments, he passed around to the Committee members some coins to show how hard it is for an average person to determine where a coin came from let alone its provenance. He also passed along some Italian auction catalogues to make the point that it is ridiculous to place import restrictions on US collectors and dealers when ancient Greek and Roman coins are sold quite openly in Italy. Finally, in response to the Committee chair's invitation to provide Italy with suggestions, he indicated that Italy should adopt a system like the British Treasure Trove law. Under that law, the State has a right of first refusal over hoards. While the State records all hoards and may retain any coin it wishes upon payment of fair market value, the majority of coins are returned to the finder.
Arthur Houghton also touched on this issue of coins as part of his overall presentation. Mr. Houghton is the outgoing President of the American Numismatic Society, but he did not address the Committee in that capacity. Rather, he spoke as a former member of the Committee from 1983-1987. He indicated that when he served on the Committee, the Committee imposed import restrictions on items from El Salvador from a specific region with a unique culture. He said that by comparison the Italian request was massive and very complicated: the Committee should take whatever time was necessary to consider it and do whatever was needed to slow it down.
He said that in his view the Committee should consider the request in parts and narrow its focus to: (1) cultural material that was geography-specific and clearly identifiable as being of Italian origin (he included Etruscan, Apulian and Villanovan, excluded most Roman artifacts, specifically including coins); (2) of significant cultural value and/or from sensitive sites; (3) was not permitted to be sold freely, with Italian government permission (as coins are); and (4) was reasonably documented by the Italian government or Italian museums. As an example of the universality and indistinguishability of Roman-period material, he passed around a terracotta cup that he had acquired in Israel, but which the Italians now seemed to lay claim to. He said that Israeli law, which allowed the export of such objects (including this), was a paradigm the Italians could usefully follow.
Malcolm Bell, an archeologist affiliated with the University of Virginia, took the opposite view. He first spoke about Italy's current efforts to end pillage, and get its own house in order by securing store rooms and modernizing museums. He then catalogued specific instances of pillage of coins from Morgantina and Kamarina. He claimed pillagers are seeking coins with metal detectors, and suggested that hoards are regularly found within the archeological stratum. He cited the specific instances of 5 hoards found at Morgantina. He also said 11,000 individual coins had been found at Morgantina, 9,900 of which were identifiable as emanating from Sicilian and South Italian mints. Mr. Bell did not reveal the numbers of the coins in the 5 hoards, where precisely they were found, or what percentage of all coins were in collectable condition.
In a short statement, R. Ross Holloway, a Brown University professor, expressed his support for Mr. Bell's position about hoards. He also decried any investment in ancient art lacking a provenance.
What will the future hold? The best case scenario is that the Committee will refuse to support imposition of any import restrictions on ancient coins. Such a decision would hopefully have some value as precedent should another foreign country make a similar request for import restrictions. On this point, coin collectors should take some solace in the fact that imposition of import restrictions is probably much less likely for coins than for any other ancient artifacts.
If restrictions are imposed, how they are worded and how they are interpreted will determine their effect. Narrow restrictions would only have a negligible effect on the hobby. For example, if only direct shipments from Italy are targeted, then the damage to the hobby will be limited as most ancient coins sold on the international market are bought for resale elsewhere. On the other hand, if any restrictions are worded as broadly as sought by archeologists, most legal, international trade in coins could be hampered. High value coins will certainly continue to travel internationally with prices adjusted upwards to reflect increased transactional costs associated with additional paperwork to document a coin's provenance. Such costs will be more difficult to justify for low and medium priced coins. Thus, demand for such coins will be serviced either by supplies of such coins currently available in this country, or, perhaps, by smugglers.
Interested persons should contact the Committee to express their views. Committee members representing museum interests include the Committee Chair, Dr. Martin E. Sullivan, the Executive Director of Historic St. Mary's City, and Stephen E. Weil, Emeritus Senior Scholar, Center for Museum Studies, Smithsonian Institution. Hester A. Davis, Arkansas State Archeologist, Susan K. McIntosh of Rice University, and Prudence M. Rice of Southern Illinois University represent the interests of archeology and anthropology. Gerald Steibel represents the interests of dealers. Miguel Corzo, Richard Lanier, and Lawrence Reger represent the general public.
Any correspondence may be faxed to the Committee at (202) 619-5177, but should be addressed as follows:
Dr. Martin E. Sullivan
Cultural Property Advisory Committee
United States Department of State
SA 44, Room 247
Washington, DC 20547
* Peter K. Tompa is a senior counsel at Carr Goodson Warner, a Washington, DC law firm. He is a former officer of the Numismatic Society of Washington, DC. The views expressed in this article are entirely his own.