Saturday, May 8, 2010

For some coin collectors, federal regulations don't add up

This article was in today's Washington Post:

It discusses the ACCG's Baltimore "test case" and Thursday's CPAC meeting about the Italian MOU:

For some coin collectors, federal regulations don't add up

By Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 8, 2010; B01

They're only worth about $275, but 23 bronze coins seized by the federal government at Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport last year just might be the most important chunk of change for numismatists in years.

These well-worn coins, struck more than a thousand years ago in Cyprus and China, are at the center of a dispute over U.S. rules that collectors across the country say could threaten their popular and beloved hobby.

For generations, collectors have freely bought and sold coins from around the world, including many from ancient times. But the United States in recent years began restricting imports of some coins as part of a broader effort to protect antiquities and combat the looting of archaeological sites abroad.

It began with some Cypriot coins in 2007, then certain Chinese coins were added last year. But numismatists are worried that Roman coins, the passion of many collectors, could be next to join the list.

So the Missouri-based Ancient Coin Collectors Guild bought the 23 bronze coins in April last year from a London dealer, solely to challenge the rules and set off a legal showdown over requirements that people show proof of where or when certain coins are unearthed.

In a lawsuit filed February in Maryland federal court, the collectors say presidents John Quincy Adams, Thomas Jefferson and Ronald Reagan were ancient coin collectors. Most coins, they contend, were so widely circulated in ancient times that it might be impossible to know when they were dug up. Plus, they argue, the rules will do little to discourage plundering because they apply only to U.S. collectors.

Wayne G. Sayles, a longtime collector and guild executive director, said he agrees that some antiquities -- such as religious icons, mummies and precious artwork -- need the government's protection and belong to the people of the country in which they were found. But he thinks coins are different. Most aren't high-dollar items, he says, and collectors keep, study and protect coins that museums don't want.

"Do I think that the Liberty Bell ought to be sold to somebody in Russia? No, it belongs here. I understand that, and I agree with that. But we're not talking about the Liberty Bell," Sayles said.

On the flip side, there's Richard M. Leventhal, an anthropology professor at the University of Pennsylvania. He's among those who see a coin or pottery bowl or marble statue as pieces of one big historical puzzle. Leventhal, who said he once was shot at by looters at an ancient Mayan site in Belize (they missed), supports the restrictions that he thinks will hinder metal-detector-toting thieves who destroy historic sites before archaeologists can study them.

"Coins are part of the record of our past. To learn about the past and think about our identities and cultural heritage, coins have to be included," Leventhal said. "Ripping stuff out of the ground destroys our knowledge of who we are and where we came from."

Under federal rules, anyone bringing certain ancient coins that are Cypriot or Chinese into the United States must either have an export permit from that country or documents that show they were unearthed elsewhere or purchased before the regulations went into effect.

On Wednesday, Leventhal and Sayles attended a hearing before the State Department's Cultural Property Advisory Committee on an agreement with Italy that restricts the import of some pre-classical, classical and Imperial Roman artifacts. Many collectors are lobbying against the addition of coins, while many archaeologists want them on the list.

Souzana Steverding of Ancient Coins for Education told the committee that the restrictions would hurt her group's efforts to put common ancient coins in the hands of students. Brown University archaeology professor Susan Alcock said they should be protected. "There may be millions of these little suckers, but they are still important," she said.

Sebastian Heath, the Archaeological Institute of America's vice president for professional responsibilities, said he gets frustrated when he sees ancient coins, still caked in the dirt in which they were found, advertised on eBay with no indication they were studied in context. "It's impossible to recover that knowledge," he said.

It may seem like this is a clear divide between collectors and archaeologists, until you hear from Alan M. Stahl, curator of Princeton University's extensive coin collection.

Stahl is an archaeologist who appreciates the great value of finding a coin buried exactly where it dropped centuries ago. Coins help date sites or provide clues to where people traveled. But he also purchases coins to grow the university's collection, one of the oldest in the United States. And, he said, few coins on the market have the paperwork to prove their provenance.

"It is not a simple problem, which is why I don't put myself solidly in either camp," Stahl said.
In fact, Stahl presents the issue to students in the numismatic methodologies class he teaches. "If there is a coin that would improve Princeton's collection for teaching and research purposes, and the only example does not come with provenance, should I buy it?" he asks. The students, he said, almost always vote yes.

One recent afternoon, Michael Mehalick, an internship coordinator at Montgomery College and a guild member who has collected coins since he was a boy, laid out some of his prized ancient Roman coins on the kitchen counter of his New Carrollton home. Most cost about $50 to $100.

Mehalick, a history buff who can tick off names of Roman leaders, doesn't want sites to be looted. But he thinks the new rules would do little to deter plundering and would make it harder for him to legally purchase coins.

"It's strange because coins have been collected for hundreds and hundreds of years," Mehalick said. "It's a way to have a tangible piece of history that is not too expensive. Most of the coins I have, you probably would not see in a museum because there is not enough interest.

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