Friday, August 8, 2008

Nicholas Burns "The Philhellene," Cultural Politics and the Controversial Decision to Impose Import Restrictions on Coins of Cypriot Type

Did then Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns order the controversial decision to impose import restrictions on coins of Cypriot type as a "thank you" to a coalition of Greek and Greek Cypriot lobbying groups called "the National Coordinated Effort of Hellenes" or "CEH"which had given him an award? As venal as that sounds, it seems to be a distinct possibility based on the close proximity in time between receipt of the award and the making of the decision. Pending a meaningful release of relevant documents in the ongoing FOIA litigation brought by several numismatic groups against the State Department, members of the numismatic community cannot help but suspect the worst.

It's been a vexing mystery why in July 2007 the State Department overturned a prior decision to exempt coins from import restrictions on Cypriot cultural artifacts. Certainly, there was no material change in the underlying facts that recommended changing existing precedent when the issue was raised unexpectedly (for coin collectors at least) at the January 2007 CPAC hearing to discuss the renewal itself. If anything, a good case could have been made for ending all restrictions. After all, the Greek Cypriot state could be viewed as culpable for its own looting problems. The Greek Cypriots have always claimed that restrictions are necessary because Greek Cypriot police cannot protect archaeological sites on the Turkish side of the Island. However, the Greek Cypriot State has received much of the blame for the continued division of the Island. Certainly, the Greek Cypriots were the ones that voted down the UN sponsored Annan Plan aimed at attempting to reunify the Greek and Turkish communities. See

This weblog and other collector-oriented blogs and web sites have discussed the apparent coordination between the Cyprus American Archaeological Research Institute (CARRI) and staff of the State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) "Cultural Heritage Center" about the inclusion of coins even before Cyprus made its late request to the State Department. See

Yet, this early, behind the scenes coordination at a relatively low level does not in itself help explain why the State Department ultimately departed from prior precedent, particularly if as has been long suspected, the decision was made against the recommendations of the Cultural Property Advisory Committee (CPAC), the body of experts charged to provide the decision maker in the State Department with advice on the issue of whether and to what extent to impose import restrictions.

It may not be easy to justify overturning existing precedent, but if you are powerful enough even the recommendations of an advisory body like CPAC might not matter. Former Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns certainly fits the bill. As the third ranking official in the State Department (and former ambassador to Greece), he presumably could dispense with such precedent and recommendations with the wave of the hand. See

Burns certainly has had a public role in the Cypriot coins saga. He was the "MC" at the Cyprus MOU signing ceremony. That signing ceremony can be characterized as little more than a paean to Greek Cypriot jingoism with officials of our own State Department-- notably Undersecretary Burns--acting as the chorus. See That Cultural Heritage Center head Maria Kouroupas apparently stage managed Greek Cypriot Ambassador Andreas Kakouris' remark about coins that "It may be your hobby, but it's our heritage!" only underscores suspicions that nationalism rather than the real protection of Cyprus' archaeological heritage was the prime motivating factor for the exercise. See If not, why were the restrictions phrased as on "coins of Cypriot type" rather than as restrictions on ancient coins of any type traced back to archaeological sites on the Island?

In any event, it now turns out that the State Department may have agreed to unprecedented restrictions on ancient coins as a "thank you" for an award Burns received from the CEH. On or about May 16-18, 2007, Burns received CEH members as well as Kakouris at a meeting at the State Department. There, Burns was awarded the CEH's "Livanos award" See According to CEH, "Undersecratary of State Nicholas Burns was the first Philhellene to receive the Livanos Award. This award is given each year to, as its states on the award, 'that individual who, like George P. Livanos, has utilized ancient Hellenic values to realize extraordinary achievement in modern society while contributing to the improvement of our civilization.'"

Burns received his award sometime during "the 23rd Annual Cyprus, Hellenic and Orthodox Issues Conference" from May 16-18, 2007. Just days later-- on May 29, 2007-- the State Department decision maker-- Dina Powell-- was given a false choice as to whether to include coins of Cypriot type in the MOU renewal or to end all restrictions. See

At a minimum, one cannot but help wonder about the coincidence. Despite FOIA requests designed to get at the truth of the matter, ECA has to date continued to stonewall efforts to learn the reasons for the controversial decision to impose import restrictions on coins of Cypriot types. Hopefully, a pending FOIA lawsuit will shed further light on the issue whether our own State Department sold out American coin collectors and its own CPAC-- and all because an award given to Undersecretary Burns. If so, the price for betrayal of the interests of American coin collectors and likely the State Department's own CPAC was quite low indeed.


Cultural Property Observer said...

For Burns' remarks on receiving the Livanos award see:

Interestingly, the remarks note that the award itself was presented by "the International Coordinating Committee – Justice for Cyprus (PSEKA)" and not CEH.

It also should be noted that Burns' remarks betray a distinct lack of detachment as to issues relating to Greece. As Burns himself states, "I wear this title of Philhellene rather proudly. You don’t spend four years in Greece, as my wife and three daughters and I did, and not come back feeling committed to Greek thought, to the Greek way of life, to Greece itself in my case....We’re personally committed to the country, to the relationship."

Whether such evident bias infected the decision to impose import restrictions on coins of Cypriot type will be a question to be determined in the ongoing FOIA litigation against the State Department.

If State has nothing to hide on the issue, why has it been so unwilling to make a meaningful production of documents relevant to the issue of import restrictions on coins of Cypriot type?

Cultural Property Observer said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Cultural Property Observer said...

For David Gill's contrary take on this, see:

I should also note Gill pointed out the State Department release cited above, though as also noted above if anything, Burns' remarks only raise additional questions of bias.