Monday, March 30, 2015

ISIS Destruction Prompts Debate on Repatriation

The New York Times reports how ISIS' jihad against Iraq's and Syria's cultural heritage has prompted questions about the wisdom of repatriation of disputed artifacts.  And so it should.  Dispersion through lawful trade and museum loans helps ensure preservation.  Concentration and worse yet repatriation to active war zones does nothing but ensure destruction of irreplaceable artifacts.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Assad Loyalist Support for HR 1493 Should Raise Serious Questions

Franklin Lamb, an unapologetic supporter of Hezbollah and the odious Assad regime, has written an op-ed supporting HR 1493, a bill that purports to offer protection for international cultural property due to political instability, armed conflict or natural and other disasters.  And no wonder.  While offering some improvements from its predecessor, HR 5703, that failed to pass last term, the new bill retains many of its defects.  Most notably, these include authorizing repatriation of such Syrian artifacts that may be seized by US Customs back to the same government whose military likely looted Apamea and Palmyra and most certainly has unmercifully bombed and shelled the old city of Aleppo and early Sunni religious sites into dust.   Hopefully, these and other serious problems that remain can be addressed as the legislative process unfolds.

Art Newspaper Calls for Selective Deaccession of Italian Museum Stores

Using materials recently repatriated from an old investigation by Switzerland as a jumping off point, Anna Somers Cocks, writing for the Art Newspaper, calls for selective deaccession of artifacts in Italy's immense museum stores.  And why not?  Italy is broke and should sell what it can't properly maintain, study and display for the benefit of its underfunded cultural establishment.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Italian-American Expresses Concern About MOUs Impact on the Study and Appreciation of Italian Culture

Karen Antonelli, a dual citizen of the US and Italy, expressed these heartfelt concerns about the impact of the MOU on Italian Americans:

Dear Cultural Property Affairs [Advisory] Committee,

I am a dual citizen of the United States and of Italy living in San Francisco, California. I have a Ph.D. in Italian Literature from the University of California at Los Angeles as well as an M.B.A. from the University of Southern California. Although I lived most of my first twenty years in Italy (but born of American parents of Italian descent who were working for the U.S. government at the time), I have resided, full time, in the United States for more than forty years and treasure both my U.S. and my Italian heritage. I get tremendous satisfaction sharing my Italian heritage and culture with my fellow Americans and promote business relationships between Italy and the U.S. by teaching Italian language, literature and film classes as well as by performing professional translations for individuals and companies.

Unfortunately, the proposed extension (and perhaps expansion) of the present Memorandum of Understanding with Italy will do little to help, and a great deal to harm, the study and understanding of Italian heritage and culture, at the very least to the extent that it will restrict the import into the United States of abundant small objects like coins and other common artifacts. This is especially true as these objects were intended to, and did, travel great distances. These objects are useful not only in teaching the history of ancient Rome, its successor city-states and the modern Italian Republic, but in understanding so many aspects of its culture...societal relationships, religion, cultural tropes, trade and economics.

The proposed MOU only harms United States citizens...restricting the import of the coins and similar common artifacts here, while they continue to be bought and sold, and travel widely, throughout Europe and even in Asia.

As an Italian citizen, if I can purchase these objects in Italy as my heritage, why may I not bring them to the U.S. to share and teach?

Of course, I support the suppression of looting of archaeological sites (as I understand it, the purported reason for the ban on importation) but there are much better ways to do this than the extension of the MOU. Please do not renew it, or at least exempt from the extended MOU all common, abundant artifacts like coins. The goal of the Committee should be to preserve culture, not as an end in itself, but to promote the availability and awareness of culture to the citizens of the United States.

CPO (as an Italian-American himself) understands and agrees with these concerns.   MOUs such as this only cut-off access to common artifacts like historical coins that provide us with a tangible link to our own culture of birth.

Ms. Antonelli's letter has been published on the website of Primo Magazine, which celebrates Italian culture.

Organizations Overwhelmingly Against Renewal of Italian MOU or Import Restrictions on Coins

CPO previously reported that 94% of the public comments on the regulations.gov website either oppose the MOU's extension or import restrictions on coins.  It also appears that comments of  organizations representing the interests of their members also follow that trend.

Trade Associations


Educational Organizations

Both the American Numismatic Association and Ancient Coins for Education expressed concerns about import restrictions on coins. 

Professional Organizations

The Association of Art Museum Directors took a nuanced approach to the MOU.  While supporting the renewal, AAMD requested changes to encourage Italy to live up to its part of the bargain.

Advocacy Groups

Two groups that advocate for the interests of dealers and collectors, the Association of Dealers and Collectors in Ancient and Ethnographic Art and the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild, also argued against renewing the MOU or extending restrictions on historical coins.

In contrast, only one advocacy group associated with the archaeological lobby, the Lawyers' Committee for Cultural Heritage Preservation, supports the extension unequivocally.  

All in all, 7 organizations oppose the renewal or import restrictions on coins, 1 organization supports the renewal, but with significant qualifications and only 1 organization supports the renewal unequivocally. 

They've Got it Backwards

Arturo Russo, a principal of Numismatica Ars Classica NAC AG, a numismatic firm and auctioneer with offices in Milan, Zurich and London, knows first hand about the frustrations of dealing with the Italian cultural bureaucracy.  As he states in his comments to CPAC:

As a quid pro quo for all prior MOUs, Italy promised to facilitate the issuance of export certificates for archaeological objects artifacts legitimately sold within Italy itself. 2001 MOU, Art. II, F; 2006 Extension, Art. II, F; 2011 Extension, Art. II, G.

This has not happened. In fact, since coins were added to the designated list for import restrictions in 2011, the Italian cultural bureaucracy has made it almost impossible for me to export coins from the country.

I used to be able to secure export licenses for collections of ancient coins so they could be sold at auction abroad. After restrictions were placed on Greek coins from Italy and Sicily, Etruscan coins from Italy, Early Roman Republican coins, and early Imperial Colonial and Provincial coins to 37 AD, I was told this would no longer be possible. When I enquired why, I was told that if such export licenses were granted, the Americans would not think that the Italian cultural bureaucracy was serious about protecting its cultural patrimony. It is important to state that these denials have been issued for coins with a legitimate provenance.

This is entirely backwards. The MOU purports to require Italy to make such objects legitimately sold within Italy available for legal export abroad, but instead the MOU is being used to justify precluding legal export of even common coins sold within Italy itself. Furthermore, Italian authorities deny export licenses even for very common coin types based on the argument that even a small variety is a good reason to decline an application. Please note that they also deny export licenses for coins of non-Italian origin with the premise that they would be difficult to acquire for Italian Institutions.

Another major problem is that most of the staff is not qualified to cast informed judgment on the rarity or importance of a coin, in fact they are archeologists and not numismatists. I must admit on several occasions I found myself informing them of the existence of the proper reference works required to establish the rarity of a coin type or even worse I had to draw their attention to the fact that several coins of that type were already in Italian Museums.

Unfortunately, since 2012 the attitude of the Italian officials towards export licenses for coins have changed dramatically. Italian collectors are still important buyers in auctions abroad, but in the eyes of Italian authorities every single coin of average rarity should remain on Italian soil. I find this position unfair and unreasonable especially considering that Italy has a gigantic numismatic heritage which is not published and more importantly very difficult to access for scholars and collectors.

In my experience, almost all European countries take a reasonable position by granting export licenses for most of the coins excluding only the exceedingly rare coin types.


More reason, if any were needed, to free the coins from foolish import restrictions or at least give them a "pass" and require US Customs to accept EU export permits or evidence no export permit is required for imports of "coins of Italian types" from the EU.  After all, Italy, as part of the EU, is also bound not only by the MOU, but EU law.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

AAMD to CPAC and Italy: Free the Coins!

The Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) presents a sobering portrait of Italy's unwillingness or inability to live up to its end of the current MOU with the United States.  Simply, Italy's grossly underfunded and over-bureaucratic cultural establishment is not up to the task. 

Italians are a wonderful people, with an unparalleled culture, and with great and innovative artisans with the business acumen to make Italian products much desired world-wide.  However, a distinct lack of effective and honest governance is a problem that negatively impacts all else, including the preservation of Italy's tremendous cultural heritage.

So, given the dismal performance of Italy's public sector, why not instead unleash some of that Italian entrepreneurial spirit and let Italy's antiquities and coin dealers sell not just to other Italians, but to the world?  After all, each MOU  has already called for Italy to ease the process for granting export permits for artifacts legally sold within Italy itself, something that has not happened (along with much else) courtesy of Italy's choking bureaucracy.

In particular, AAMD advocates opening up the Italian auction market so it can not only be a source of legitimately acquired artifacts, but help bring much needed money to help fund Italy's underfunded cultural establishment. 

And what of coins?  The AAMD rightly states they should be freed of foolish import restrictions: 

Export restrictions on many ancient coins...are illogical because they are not specific to Italy in origin and there is a ready, legal market for them in Italy. Many dealers in Italy advertise ancient coins for sale.Either Italy must agree to issue export permits for coins sold legally in Italy or the designated list should be amended to allow such coins to be brought into the United States.

Yes, by all means, free the coins!  Rome should rejoin the list of recognized world numismatic capitals like New York, Hong Kong, London, Paris, Munich, Vienna, Zurich, and new hot spots like Budapest, Prague and Warsaw as a place where ancient coins are bought and sold at auction for an international audience of serious collectors.