From The Celator, April 2004
Wayne G. Sayles, "Through the Looking Glass" |
April 01, 2004
This week, we learned a good lesson in representative democracy-it is neither representative nor democratic. Several months ago, we discussed current threats to our hobby and the need for ancient coin collectors to express their views about legislation that could dramatically affect the ability of American citizens to legally and freely collect ancient coins. It is all too obvious that expressing our views is not enough.
Initially, we were warned about the potentially devastating effects of a bill introduced in the House of Representatives (HR 2009) that was vigorously supported by the Archaeological Institute of America. This bill would have made importation of ancient coins into the United States a difficult, if not impossible, undertaking. Collectors and dealer associations voiced their concern and indignation, but that merely delayed the inevitable.
The same song was struck up under a new name-HR 3497. This successor bill was supposed to exempt ancient coins from the import restrictions. What? It didn't? As the body temperature of collectors rose again, we were soothed once more with promises of reason and consideration for our position while the bill bounced around in committee.
Then, like a thief in the night, an import restriction quietly slipped through the Senate with little fanfare as an obscure attachment to the "Miscellaneous Trade and Technical Corrections Act of 2003" (S-671). This provision of the Senate bill, under the guise of protecting the cultural property of Iraq, would give the administration authority to impose import restrictions on ancient coins-even though the administration's Cultural Property Advisory Committee has twice recommended against imposing such limitations. It should be disappointing news to ancient coin collectors that the bill's originator, Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa, had been personally briefed several months ago about the need for a coin exemption by a serious collector who is one of his constituents.
It is very possible that this bill will have been approved by the House and made its way to the Oval Office before the ink on this issue of The Celator is dry.
Fortunately, the hobby has a friend in Washington, attorney Peter Tompa, who has spent countless hours fighting for the rights of ancient coin collectors-much of it pro bono. Without Peter's generous efforts on our behalf, we would be oblivious to the concerted actions against us. Unfortunately, the AIA has a team of lawyers that seem to have an open check book for advancing that organization's agenda in Congress.
One might expect that the various numismatic associations and societies in the United States would vigorously oppose any attempts to restrict importation of ancient coins, but so far they have only offered what I would characterize as token support for collectors. Perhaps they believe that the threat is not real. Perhaps they are reluctant to antagonize the academic community that supports these restrictions. Perhaps they are just too busy with their own housekeeping. In any event, we find ourselves with a saddle and no horse.
All of the bills mentioned here are portrayed as necessary actions to preclude the sale of Iraqi cultural property that has been looted from museums or archaeological sites in Iraq. The wording of the provisions is quite general and is open to broad interpretation. The burden of proof that an object is not from Iraq falls upon the importer. Even though a very small percentage of ancient coins in the market today were struck in Iraq, overly zealous customs officials, who know little about the coins, could hold up virtually any shipment and force an expensive and time consuming defense to avoid confiscation. For all practical purposes, this would halt the flow of ancient coins into the United States.
The impact of such an action would be substantial. Of course, the loss of a freedom (including the pursuit of happiness) is always a disaster, and it is not a very long step from import limitation to outright prohibition. There would also be a financial impact. The ancient coin market is much larger than one might expect. It is not unusual for a major auction to generate $3 million or more in sales. There are about 100 ancient coin dealers advertising in this journal and an even greater number with a presence on the world wide web. The Vcoins Online Coin Show (http://vcoins.com) currently includes more than 22,000 ancient coins valued at about $5.5 million. Although a precise assessment is not available, the gross sale price of ancient coins in the United States probably exceeds $50 million per year. Many of the dealers mentioned above earn their livelihood in the market.
Perhaps the greatest loss resulting from the restriction or demise of private collecting of ancient coins would be the corresponding loss of independent amateur research. Many of the important numismatic studies published in the past four centuries were written by collectors. The field is simply too broad and new discoveries are too numerous for the academic world to keep up with. Private collectors have in many cases proven to be better stewards of the past than their academic counterparts.
It is hardly necessary to convince readers of this journal that ancient coin collecting is an important and productive pursuit. The point is that we need to convince those who are in a position to control our lives. The AIA is doing a commendable job of getting their agenda before the decision makers in Washington. If we want to protect our freedom to collect ancient coins, we are going to have to present our case as effectively as they do, and we are going to have to speak with a single loud voice. If the existing associations aren't willing to take the lead for us, maybe it is time for our own political action committee.