Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Please Help Save Roman Imperial Coin Collecting

The State Department has announced that Italy has requested a renewal of its current Memorandum of Understanding (“MOU”) with the United States.  That MOU first authorized import restrictions on Italian cultural artifacts from the Pre-Classical, Classical and Imperial Roman periods in 2001.  The restrictions were extended 2006 and again in 2011 and 2016.  The 2011 renewal added new import restrictions on Greek, early Republican and Provincial coins from the early Imperial Period.  Now, the archaeological lobby, which actively opposes private collecting, has indicated it will press for import restrictions on Roman Imperial Coins—the heart of ancient coin collecting—as well.   Accordingly, if one feels strongly about their continued ability to collect Roman Imperial and other historical coins and artifacts, they should comment on the regulations.gov website.  Why?  Because silence will only be spun as acquiesce.  So, serious collectors should oppose yet another renewal as unnecessary and detrimental to the appreciation of Italian culture and the people to people contacts collecting brings.  Moreover, they should clearly state under no circumstances should import restrictions be extended to Roman Imperial coins. 

Further information about the July 22, 2020 Cultural Property Advisory Committee (CPAC) meeting and how to comment before the July 8, 2020 deadline can be found here:  https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2020/06/08/2020-12313/cultural-property-advisory-committee-notice-of-meeting  The Federal Register notice also has a green "submit a formal comment button" which should allow you to comment directly.

A.  Background for Coin Collectors

There are large numbers of coin collectors and numismatic firms in the US.  Very few collectors do so to “invest.”  Most collect out of love of history, as an expression of their own cultural identity, or out of interest in other cultures.  All firms that specialize in ancient coins in the US are small businesses. Private collectors and dealers support much academic research into coins.  For example, an American collector collaborated with academics to produce an extensive study of Seleucid coins. A further clamp down on collecting will inevitably lead to less scholarship.

While what became the Cultural Property Implementation Act (CPIA) was being negotiated, one of the State Department’s top lawyers assured Congress that “it would be hard to imagine a case” where coins would be restricted.   In 2007, however, the State Department imposed import restrictions on Cypriot coins, against CPAC’s recommendations, and then misled the public and Congress about it in official government reports.  What also should be troubling is that the decision maker, Assistant Secretary Dina Powell, did so AFTER she had accepted a job with Goldman Sachs where she was recruited by and worked for the spouse of the founder of the Antiquities Coalition, an archaeological advocacy group that has lobbied extensively for import restrictions.  Since that time, additional import restrictions have been imposed on coins from Algeria, Bulgaria, China, Egypt, Greece, Iraq, Italy, Jordan, Libya, Syria and Yemen. 

The cumulative impact of import restrictions has been very problematical for collectors since outside of some valuable Greek coins, most coins simply lack the document trail necessary for legal import under the “safe harbor” provisions of 19 U.S.C. § 2606.  The CPIA only authorizes the government to impose import restrictions on coins and other artifacts first discovered within and subject to the export control of Italy. (19 U.S.C. § 2601). Furthermore, seizure is only appropriate for items on the designated list exported from the State Party after the effective date of regulations.  (19 U.S.C. § 2606).  Unfortunately, the State Department and Customs view this authority far more broadly.  In particular, designated lists have been prepared based on where coins are made and sometimes found, not where they are actually found and hence are subject to export control.  Furthermore, restrictions are not applied prospectively solely to illegal exports made after the effective date of regulations, but rather are enforced against any import into the U.S. made after the effective date of regulations, i.e., an embargo, not targeted, prospective import restrictions.  While it is true enforcement has been spotty, CPO knows of situations where coins have been detained, seized and repatriated where the importer cannot produce information to prove his or her coins were outside of a country for which import restrictions were granted before the date of restrictions.

      B.  What You Can Do
Admittedly, CPAC seems to be little more than a rubber stamp.  Still, to remain silent is to give the cultural bureaucrats and archaeologists with an ax to grind against collectors exactly what they want-- the claim that any restrictions will not be controversial. 
For comments, either comment through the Federal Register notice above or use http://www.regulations.gov, enter the docket [DOS-2020-0022] and follow the prompts to submit your comments.  Alternatively, click this link and click on the Blue “Comment Now” Button which should pull up a screen that allows you to comment https://www.regulations.gov/document?D=DOS_FRDOC_0001-5233 (Please note comments may be posted only UNTIL July 8, 2020 at 11:59 PM.)
Please also note comments submitted in electronic form are not private. They will be posted on http://www.regulations.gov. Because the comments cannot be edited to remove any identifying or contact information, the Department of State cautions against including any information in an electronic submission that one does not want publicly disclosed (including trade secrets and commercial or financial information that is privileged or confidential pursuant to 19 U.S.C. 2605(i)(1)).

C.  What Should You Say?

What should you say?  Provide a brief, polite explanation about why the renewal should be denied or limited.  Question CPAC why it’s necessary to renew this MOU yet again when looting is under control and the real jeopardy to Italy’s cultural patrimony comes from poor stewardship by the Italian State.  Indicate how restrictions will negatively impact your business and/or the cultural understanding and people to people contacts collecting provides.   Coin collectors should add that it’s typically impossible to assume a particular coin (especially Roman ones) was “first discovered within” and “subject to the export control” of Italy.  In fact, by far most Roman Imperial coins are found not in Italy, but on the Empire’s frontiers.  You might add that Italian historical coins are very common and widely and legally available for sale elsewhere, and point out the absurdity of restricting coins freely available in Italy itself.  Finally, you don’t have to be an American citizen to comment—you just need to be concerned enough to spend twenty or so minutes to express your views on-line.  Comments from Italian collectors are particularly welcome! 

Personalized comments are best, but feel free to use this submission as a model: 

Dear CPAC:

Enough is enough. This MOU should be allowed to lapse. Its negative impacts on collecting and the appreciation of Italian culture and people to people contacts collecting brings now far outweigh any benefits. At a minimum, please free all ancient coins from restriction. Such coins are openly and legally available for sale within Italy itself. It makes absolutely no sense to continue to restrict American access to what Italians themselves have enjoyed since the Renaissance. Finally, please do not recommend new restrictions on Roman Imperial Coins. As the products of a great empire, these coins circulated throughout Europe, the Middle East and beyond. They “belong” not to Italy, but to us all.


Addendum (July 10, 2020):  The State Department has announced that it has extended the deadline for comments set forth in the Federal Register from July 8 to July 14.  Cynics will wonder whether this change is to allow time for the archaeological lobby to gather more comments.  As of July 9, there were 388 comments received and 72 comments posted, of which only 2 supported the MOU with Italy.

Thursday, June 4, 2020

Coin Auctioneer with Archaeological Background Seeks to Rediscover Old Provenances with the Help of Facial Recognition Technology

                 On May 30, 2020, Dr. Jonas Flueck of Ex-Numis (https://www.ex-numis.com/page/about.html) and Lugdunam International Auction House (https://www.lugdunum-numismatik.com/en/) explained his use of facial recognition technology to rediscover old provenances for ancient coins.  United States import restrictions imposed on ancient coins, new regulations in Germany and the EU, and claims that terrorists have been selling ancient coins to fund their activities have all made the rediscovery of old provenances more important than before.

                Dr. Flueck prefaced his talk with a discussion of different types of provenances.  Provenance is generally comparable to the concept of chain of custody.    The International Association of Dealers in Ancient Art has developed useful concepts to explain different forms of provenance.  “Hearsay provenance” is the weakest form of provenance.  This is a vague provenance, usually restricted to a date or location.  An example is “from an old Swiss collection.”  The only thing that backs up this provenance is the good faith of the dealer in question.  “Named provenance” is somewhat stronger.  It is a provenance linked to a specific collection or person.  The problem is that this kind of provenance cannot always be verified.  The strongest form of provenance is “documented provenance” linked to a specific sale or other documentary material like invoices or export licenses.  It is this last, strongest type of provenance which Ex-Numis seeks to reestablish.

                Until now, dealers and collectors have had to conduct manual searches through hundreds of old auction catalogues to recapture old provenances.  Without some suspicion where a coin may have appeared in the past, this is virtually an impossible undertaking.   The genius of Dr. Flueck’s system is that he has spent considerable time, effort and money scanning thousands of auction catalogues and then applying facial recognition technology to compare coins which are submitted to his service to those in old catalogues in order to recover old provenances.   These include some 130,000 coins listed in catalogues pre-dating 1970, the date of the UNESCO Convention.

                Still, the system has some serious limitations that help explain why the vast majority of coins without a recoverable provenance are not the products of recent, illicit digs.  First, before widespread use of digital photography in the 1990’s, it was time consuming and difficult to take photographs of coins.  For that reason, the vast majority of coins sold at auction or in fixed price lists were not photographed.  Second, although Ex-Numis has recently sought to add fix price lists to its database, many of these lists were only produced in small numbers and are no longer easily available today.  Lastly, the system does not capture more recent provenances created during the digital era; however, such coins can be found reviewing commercially available databases, like Coin Archives, AC Search, Sixbid Archives or CNG’s Research page. 

                Notwithstanding these limitations, when a match is found, it can not only detail lost provenances but whether a coin has been altered over time by cleaning or tooling.  It can also provide some assurance that a coin was on the market before the advent of highly sophisticated fakes produced with the use of laser cut coin dies.  Conversely, it can prompt concerns about authenticity if a coin was previously withdrawn from auction. 

                Recovering a provenance can also establish a particular coin was formally in a prestigious collection, like that of Prof. Pozzi and Sir Arthur Evans, a famous archaeologist.   Moreover, it can show coins travelling internationally between the United States and Europe.  Finally, it can show how prices change over time for specific coins.

                Archaeologists and others not familiar with ancient coin collecting often ask why so many ancient coins lack a provenance.  First, most coins in the past auctions were a very small part of the market.  Most coins were instead purchased at coin fairs and in coin stores with an invoice, but one which did not picture the coin.  Second, because provenances were not that important, they were often not included in auction catalogues, except for coins from famous collections.  Third, before the advent of modern facial recognition technology, it was very time consuming to search for old auction provenances by reviewing old catalogues.

                Dr. Flueck became interested in old auction catalogues when he began work at a Swiss auction house.  Over time, he has collected a large number of auction catalogues, which he married to facial imaging technology.  This technology works best for coins with irregular flans, which is common in the Greek series.  It works less well with coins with regular flans made in quantity, which includes most Roman Republican and Imperial coins.  It is also difficult to match coin images in old catalogues produced with the use of plaster casts.

                The process for developing his system was very time consuming.  First, he collected a large number of catalogues based on lists of historic catalogues.    He then cut out individual pages and created PDF pages and then pages individual coins.   He ended up scanning approximately 5,000 catalogues to create his database.  These catalogues date from the late 19th c. to about 2005, when most catalogues went digital. The auctions are from around the world of ancient, chiefly Greek and Roman coins.

                Since 2006, he has rediscovered more than 5,000 lost provenances, which he hopes do not get lost again.  It is easier for the system to locate coins with irregular flans.  It is more difficult to locate coin images with regular flans, which includes all early coin images made by use of plaster casts.

                Going forward, Dr. Flueck hopes to add known forgeries and stolen coins to the database.   Such coins can then be removed from the market and stolen coins returned to their rightful owner.

                Dr. Flueck then answered several questions.  He was first asked if his system could be used for Greek vases.  He believes a similar system could be applied to Greek vases if funding is found.

                Dr. Flueck was then asked if it is harder to find provenances for Roman coins because more Greek coins in the past appeared at auction.  Dr. Flueck does not have statistics for that because he searches for Greek coin provenances far more frequently.  He does note however that it is more difficult to find matches or Roman coins because of their more regular flans.

                Dr. Flueck has not been asked to provide expert legal testimony, but he has provided provenance information used for export and import paperwork.

                Dr. Flueck asked how fast the database is growing.  He indicates he is at a point where it is difficult to acquire new catalogues.  He hopes to add reference works providing provenance, major collections that were dispersed privately and fixed price lists.  Of course, this is also very time consuming.  It is noted there is a dearth of published provenances from the late 1930’s to 1950’s due to WWII and its immediate aftermath.

                The oldest provenance Dr. Flueck has traced is from the late 19th century.  The most valuable is for a Dekadrachm of Syracuse.

                Fixed price lists are important sources of provenance information from the 1950’s-1990’s.  Dr. Flueck has a complete set of Münzen & Medaillen and Credit Suisse price lists.  Bank Leu and Hess also produced some rare lists from this period.  Dr. Flueck is missing American price lists from the 1960’s-1970’s from his database.

                There is also a discussion of the American Numismatic Society card file.  Hopefully, this can be digitized in the future. The Schaefer archive will also be a source of provenance information for Roman Republican coins.

                The database depends on what was considered an “ancient coin” in the auction catalogues.  As a result, there is uneven coverage of Byzantine or barbaric coins.  Byzantine coins are typically difficult to match because the flan shapes are so similar.

                There is a discussion of the 130,000 coins in the database with pre-1970 provenance. Dr. Flueck notes that this relatively low number is attributable to the fact that so few coins were photographed during this time period and so many were sold outside of auctions.  Even for auctions, most coins were merely listed, not pictured.  Typically only about a quarter of coins may be pictured.

                The Bronx Coin Club and the Ancient Numismatic Society of Washington, D.C. co-sponsored Dr. Flueck’s presentation.  Dr. Flueck’s Zoom Video Talk can be found here: