Sunday, February 1, 2009

German Police Run Amok Over Provenance Requirements

Various numismatic discussion lists have posted worrisome stories about the heavy handed activities of German police. In one case, German police seized a pensioner's entire coin collection after he bought four coins on an Internet auction site (eBay?). Apparently, unbeknown to pensioner, the seller was under some sort of police investigation related to cultural property issues. Hopefully, these stories are a bit overblown and this seizure and any others are just isolated incidents and the collections will be ultimately be returned to their owners. Still, such stories provide credence to the view that the recently imposed import restrictions (and their provenance requirements) on ancient coins of ancient Cypriot and Chinese type are just the beginning of a very slippery slope, here in the US as well.

In my opinion, just as troubling is news that "hardliners" within the archaeological community applaud such overzealous actions, presumably under the theory that it will "teach collectors a lesson" only to purchase coins with long established provenances (which, of course, do not exist for most coins). One thing is for sure. Those archaeologists who take pleasure in the pain of that German pensioner only feed into stereotypes of the archaeological community as a whole amongst collectors.

Here is a translation of one of the stories.

German Numismatists Ring the Alarm Bells

German cultural authorities have begun searching private homes and seizing entire collections of antique coins, if provenance of only a few coins in the collection is not documented. These invasions are being conducted under the new German laws on importation of cultural property. Coins being subjected to such scrutiny are not restricted to ancient coins presumed to have been excavated - medieval and antique modern coins are also subject to the same measures. In one case, a pensioner from the Thuringian Eisenberg recently acquired four old coins on an Internet auction site. Shortly afterwards his house was searched, ending with seizure of his entire collection. Collectors are understandably alarmed, because very few coins in their collections have provenances that will satisfy the new laws. When a collection becomes suspect only a short time is being allowed to prove licit origin before the collection is seized, and then even if the suspicion is unfounded, it is very difficult to recover the collection.

Not only coins, but all "cultural objects" more than 100 years old are subject to these new cultural laws, leading to fears that stamp collections, collections of graphic arts and antique jewelry may also be targeted. The list of "cultural objects" in the 1970 UNESCO Convention is very extensive, including such common things as coins, postage stamps, photographs and printed books.The new laws on importation of cultural property became effective in September 2008, after the German government finally gave in to demands that importation of unprovenanced coins and other artifacts should be prevented, because archaeologists allege that looting of archaeological sites is driven by the collecting market. This allegation is unproven - no verifiable, factual evidence has yet been presented to support it.

There is however significant evidence that looting would continue unabated even if collecting could be prevented in Europe and other areas where cultural property laws are respected. Meanwhile German coin collectors now feel completely insecure, like criminals suspected of breaking the law. According to Ulf Draeger - head of the Moritzburg Landesm├╝nzkabinetts and chairman of the German Society of Medallic Arts - the entry into force of these new laws, despite their laudable intentions, has led to significant collateral damage in only a short time. His conclusion: "If this situation continues, then we can pack up."

For a summary in English see the original articles in German see

Google's translator conveys the sense of these articles for those who cannot read German.

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