Frequently Asked Questions
What is the big fuss about?
There have been some very enlightened arguments on both sides of the "Collector = Looter" issue. From them comes the realization that common sense and fairness are not great truths of universal definition. Therefore, one must deal with law, not with emotion. The fact is that it is currently legal in the United States to import ancient coins from every country except Iraq and Cyprus. The import restrictions on coins from these two countries are temporary and have built in "sunset" provisions. It is illegal in many countries to export these coins, but few if any countries prohibit the importation of them. Current laws around the world generally recognize the right of people to own objects of antiquity. Even in Turkey and Greece, where export laws are exceedingly strict, it is entirely legal, with the proper permits, for a private citizen to own and possess ancient coins. In 1992, for example, a diverse group of scholars and private collectors participated in a symposium of the Turkish Numismatic Society in Istanbul, where private Turkish collectors celebrated the 25th anniversary of their organization. Most of the members of this society collect coins more than 100 years old.
The recently passed Iraq bill, and currently pending legislation and requests for import restrictions, have become of critical interest to American collectors, and ultimately provide the stimulus for creating the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild. These actions depart from a long standing international tradition of restricting exports while still allowing individual freedoms for a country's own citizens. They do what has never been done before, they make it illegal to import certain collectible coins. The burden effectively shifts to the individual to prove the legitimacy of an international transaction. No rational collector would ever argue that it should be right or legal to purchase stolen property, much less to destroy an archaeological site. But the presumption that property was stolen, just because it looks to a customs official like something on a list of "cultural property", extends well beyond the basic tenets of our legal system which protects against false accusations. There are millions of coins on the market that could never be restricted under present law because of the length of time that they have been removed from their source country. Some of them were removed more than 2,000 years ago. It is irrational and erroneous to presume that any ancient coin imported today is necessarily "stolen property" from a foreign nation. Yet, that is precisely what some archaeologists, and other academics, believe and that is indeed where the current legislation will lead us. The issue of whether coins are or are not "significant cultural property" is another issue that gets ignored in the haste of some legislators to be "politically correct". There are historical precedents, within the U.S. government, that acknowledge coins as being different than other artifacts of a nature considered to be objects of "cultural heritage". The current legislation flies in the face of those precedents.
The main reason that we face this issue today is not that there has been any mass exodus of coins from war torn Iraq or Afghanistan. Most of the coins missing from the Kabul Museum disappeared long before any American troop ever set foot in that country. There have been no reports of the loss of coins from Iraq. The reason we face the import restrictions is that ideologues in the archaeological community have seized on this period of political and emotional turmoil to advance interests that they have perennially been unable to push through Congress. It is the old football "end run" and we, the numismatic community, are suddenly caught without an adequate defense. It is not too late, but we do not have time to debate the issue. We need action, and that is what ACCG is all about.
Are ancient coins rare?
Ancient coins are among the most common ancient artifacts. In days before modern banks, people used to bury their savings in pots. If the owner did not return, the coins remained in their protective container until they were rediscovered. Such hoards can contain hundreds if not thousands of coins, often in remarkably good condition. As a result, there are hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of such coins extant today.
Aren't archaeologists good custodians of ancient coins?
While a few dedicated archaeologist-numismatists do care about coins and have used them to make important contributions to the study of numismatics, many, if not most, archaeologists view coins as just one means to date archaeological sites. Most well preserved specimens that numismatists prize do not even originate from archaeological sites. That is because most large hoards rarely come to light at archaeological sites; the ancients typically sought to hide their savings away from the prying eyes of neighbors. Instead of large hoards of well preserved coins, archaeologists typically find large numbers of ancient "small change" that was lost over time. Such coins are often so corroded by direct exposure to the soil as to be deemed uncollectible. Archaeologists tend not to treat such coins as important historical objects in themselves. Instead, after they serve a limited purpose as but one means to date archaeological sites, coins are all too often dumped into plastic bags and left to deteriorate in storage that usually lacks proper environmental controls.
What can be done to encourage protection of archaeological sites?
Looting of archaeological sites is the worst in countries that have unfair laws that treat all ancient objects as the sole property of the state. Such laws only discourage otherwise law abiding citizens from reporting their finds and encourage public corruption—often at the highest levels. In such countries, there is little incentive for finders of ancient artifacts to report their finds to the authorities; they will not receive fair compensation, and in fact they may instead receive unwelcome attention from abusive government authorities. Rather than face such ill treatment, impoverished villagers with deep distrust in their own governments will instead sell what they find secretly to middlemen, who often are working under the protection of corrupt government officials. In contrast, in countries with fair laws and transparent government procedures, like Great Britain, finders must report most ancient finds, but can expect to receive fair compensation for whatever important items government associated museums decide to retain. The results are predictable. While official British Government reports herald important discoveries made by common people, corrupt and despotic governments in source countries with harsh laws and their allies in the archaeological establishment complain about the loss of important historical information to looting. To encourage protection of archaeological sites, we must encourage the peoples' respect for a nation's past. This can only occur if people are treated fairly and are educated about the importance of preservation efforts.
What can collectors themselves do to encourage protection of archaeological sites?
Collectors can help protect archaeological sites by refusing to purchase any coin known to be removed from a scheduled archaeological site or stolen from a private or public collection and by complying with all cultural property laws in their own country. Collectors can also encourage protection of archaeological sites by sharing their knowledge of ancient civilizations with members of the public and by lobbying government officials to encourage foreign governments to treat their citizens fairly and educate them about the importance of preservation efforts. Finally, collectors can help encourage protection of archaeological sites by visiting foreign countries as tourists and specifically visiting these sites for educational purposes. The prospect of tourism encourages foreign governments to value these sites and to spend the funds necessary to preserve and protect them.
Are import restrictions necessary to curry favor with foreign nations?
Import restrictions are often pitched as a tool to smooth our foreign relations. While they may curry favor with bureaucrats within a foreign nation's archaeological establishment, support for broad declarations of state ownership over anything "old" does little to endear the United States with ordinary people within source nations who view their rulers and their unfair laws with distrust (see "Perspective from Turkey"). Rather than supporting confiscatory laws, the United States should encourage foreign governments to treat their citizens fairly by enacting fair and effective laws akin to the United Kingdom's Treasure Act.
What government action do we support and what government action do we oppose?
We support government efforts to recover coins illegally taken from scheduled archaeological sites or stolen from private or public collections when clear proof of such is evident. We oppose government efforts to place the burden of proof on collectors, dealers and museums to show that a particular coin did not come from a country with restrictive cultural property laws. This is an impossible burden to meet because there are hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of historical coins in the trade or in public and private collections with no known “provenance.” Ancient coins are so common that even archaeologists often fail to properly record the circumstances of their discovery. It is unfair to assume that collectors, dealers and museums can show the provenance of their coins when coins have been widely traded since the Renaissance without any requirement to show their chain of ownership.