By Wayne Sayles – Ancient Coin Collecting Blog
Today, the U.S. State Department (DOS) imposed import restrictions on numerous types of ancient coins cast or struck in Italy. Although the clear majority of public comment on the Memorandum Of Understanding with Italy was in opposition to restrictions on coins from any period, DOS sided, as usual, with the views of the archaeological community and a nationalist foreign government. Ironically, this announcement comes on the heels of Legislative and Executive Branch appeals for less government regulation, especially of small businesses, where President Obama called some restrictions “just plain dumb”.
At the same time, appeals to DOS from a bipartisan group of twelve U.S. Representatives to exempt coins from any MOU extension with Italy went unheeded. Obviously, the communication from government’s highest levels has not trickled down through the morass of bureaucracy at the State Department, where they continue to thumb their nose at critics of their policies—including elected officials. Although technically under the direction of the president, DOS has traditionally marched to the beat of its own drum.
The trade in licit coins of the types covered in this MOU will certainly be repressed because of the widespread absence of provenance information for coins and other minor antiquities in general—never before required, but now instantly mandatory. Maintaining provenance records for every coin struck in the history of civilization is about as useful and realistic as counting raindrops in a thunderstorm.
While the impetus for restrictions of trade in objects like ancient coins is purportedly for preservation of cultural information, the actual effect of these restrictions is to repress a natural interest by Americans in cultures from abroad, to create hurdles for independent scholarship, and to cloister academic activity within a narrow and ideological special interest group that has the undivided attention of the State Department’s Cultural Heritage Center. All that would have been necessary to comply with the governing law and to protect the interests of Italy and the archaeological community was to impose import restrictions on coins “first found” in Italy — as CPIA clearly and specifically mandates.
Instead, it has been the choice of DOS to use the phrase “of Italian type”, which applies as well to coins first found outside of Italy. The distinction is enormous in that it not only criminalizes countless “orphans” that do not have recorded provenance but have been in the trade for centuries, it also shifts the burden of proof from the accuser to the accused when a coin is detained at Customs. This is not some mere semantic issue, it is a purposeful phrasing with full knowledge of its impact and ambiguity.
In recent months, the media has been inundated with reports of a pandemic in Italy where cultural property has been literally crumbling from neglect and mismanagement. Countless genuine treasures from the past have been lost forever. The government is simply unable to deal with the scope of preserving the millions of objects already in its possession—let alone the new finds every time a new road or building is built. Yet, the very thought of private citizens owning, cherishing and preserving ancient objects is anathema to the intelligentsia of Italy and apparently of America.
The elitist attitude of professional stewards, and their self-serving protectionism, is medieval. Yet, they claim a peremptory right of total control over objects from the past. After all, how could a stupid peasant adequately study and preserve anything? It must be in the best interests of Society (with a capital S) that they “save antiquity for everyone.” No? Well, in my considerable experience as an observer, I have come to realize that diplomas and intelligence are not necessarily related.
As a solution to their cultural property woes, Italy is now contemplating commercialization of its precious cultural heritage in true Casino and McDonald’s fashion. I wonder if they’ll pass out an ancient coin with every McFlurry? (Offer does not apply to residents of the U.S.). They must think this approach is preferable to allowing private stewardship. After all, Casinos make enough money to hire more “experts” (like the ones they have now). All this rhetoric about the preservation of priceless artifacts is at best disingenuous. Cultural Property policies in Italy are all about control and job protection and everyone knows that.
So, if you’re planning a trip to Italy to see all those fantastic sites, think about the MOU and what it does to your rights. Do you really want to reward Italy for their intransigence? Maybe you’d do better to visit Britain where they have a few treasures as well, along with a law and an attitude that actually does help preserve our knowledge of the past.