Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Biden Administration Implements Last Minute Trump MOU with Turkey; Coins, Religious Artifacts of Displaced Greek, Jewish, Armenian, and Kurdish Minorities Included

Today’s Federal Register announced regulations implementing the Trump Administration’s January 19, 2021, Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the Republic of Turkey.   This MOU is the latest in a series of recent agreements with authoritarian Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) Governments engineered with behind the scenes help from archaeological advocacy groups.  

Following a pattern established in these other recent MENA MOUs, the restrictions being imposed are of exceptional breadth, including virtually all Turkish archaeological and ethnological material dating from 1.2 million B.C. to the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1924.

In a blow to advocacy groups representing displaced religious and ethnic Greek, Jewish, Armenian, and Kurdish minorities, the regulations explicitly list religious artifacts associated with these groups that were either forcibly deported and/or encouraged to leave Turkey during the troubled 20th century.  The import restrictions explicitly apply to:

I. Archaeological Material

B. Metal

7. Ceremonial Objects – Ritual and ceremonial objects pertaining to Turkey’s religious communities, in bronze, copper, gold, silver, electrum, iron, and lead. This type includes libation vessels, ritual cauldrons and pitchers, rhytons, masks, chalices, plates, censers, candelabras, crosses, pendants, bells, reliquaries, liturgical spoons, Kiddush cups, book covers and boxes, decorated book spines, Torah pointers, finials, andampoules. Approximate date: 5th millennium B.C. to the 18th century A.D.

 II.  Ethnological Material


C. Ritual and Ceremonial Objects – This category includes objects for use in religious services (Christian, Islamic, Jewish, and others) or for imperial use by the state (Byzantine Empire, Seljuk Empire, Anatolian Beyliks, and Ottoman Empire). Examples of ritual and ceremonial objects covered in the Agreement include, but are not limited to, the following objects:

1. Religious Objects – This category includes objects in all materials such as lamps, libation vessels, pitchers, chalices, plates, censers, candelabra, crosses and cross pendants, pilgrim flasks, tabernacles, boxes and chests, carved diptychs, liturgical spoons, Kiddush cups, bells, ampoules, Torah pointers and finials, prayer beads, icons,amulets, and Bektashi surrender stones. This type also includes reliquaries and reliquary containers, which may or may not include human remains. Often engraved or otherwise decorated.

 D. Paintings – This category includes works of paint on plaster, wood, or ceramic from religious or public contexts. Paintings from these periods provide information on social and religious history of the people of Turkey that may be absent from written records. Examples of paintings include, but are not limited to:

 1. Wall Paintings – This category includes paintings on various types of plaster, which generally portray religious images and/or scenes of Biblical events. Types may also include simple applied color, bands and borders, animal, floral, and geometric motifs.

2. Panel Paintings (Icons) – Icons are smaller versions of the scenes on wall paintings, and may be partially covered with gold or silver, sometimes encrusted with semiprecious or precious stones and are usually painted on a wooden panel, often for inclusion in a wooden screen. May also be painted on ceramic.

3. Works on Paper – Paintings may be on papyrus, parchment, and paper. Images depicted may include religious scenes, representations of imperial court life, simple applied color, bands and borders, animal, floral, and geometric motifs.

Additional materials associated with religious and ethnic minorities are covered more generally.  See, e.g., I. Archaeological Material, A. Stone, 1. Sculpture, b. Monuments and Stelae, c. Sarcophagi and Ossuaries, d. Large Statuary, e. Small Statuary, 2. Vessels, 4. Seals and Stamps, 5. Jewelry and Beads, B. Metal, 1. Sculpture, a. Large Statuary and Portraits, b. Small Statuary, c. Reliefs, d. Inscribed and Decorated Metal Sheets and Plates, 2. Vessels, 3. Jewelry and Personal Adornment, 6. Seals and Stamps, 8. Musical Instruments, C. Ceramic, Terracotta, and Faience, 1. Sculpture, a. Architectural Elements, b. Sarcophagi and Ossuaries, c. Large Statuary, d. Small Statuary, e. Terracotta Plaques, 2. Vessels, 4. Seals, Stamps, and Tablets, D. Bone, Ivory, and Other Organic Material, 1. Small Statuary and Figurines, 3. Seals and Stamps, E. Wood, 1. Architectural Elements, F. Glass, 1. Architectural Elements, 2. Vessels, 3. Beads and Jewelry, G. Plaster and Stucco, H. Textile, I. Leather, Parchment, and Paper, J. Rock Art, Painting, and Drawing, K. Mosaics, II. Ethnological Material, A. Architectural Elements, B. Funerary Objects, C. Ritual and Ceremonial Objects, 2. Imperial, 3. Furniture, 4. Textiles, 5. Musical Instruments, E. Written Records.

The prospect of such broad import restrictions on such artifacts raises two distinct concerns. First, as a practical matter, such import restrictions will allow Turkey to “claw back” the religious and community property of Turkey’s displaced Greek, Armenian, Jewish and Kurdish populations living in exile on import into the United States. Second, and perhaps of even more concern, the MOU provides de facto U.S. Government recognition to the claims of the authoritarian Erdogan Government to the cultural patrimony of Turkey’s ancient Greek civilization and the religious and community property of Turkey’s small Greek, Armenian, and Jewish population. Even worse, Erdogan can spin such a MOU as reflecting Department of State support for his conversion of Hagia Sophia and other former Greek Orthodox churches into mosques.

The regulations will also have a significant impact on millions of coin collectors and thousands of small businesses here and abroad that trade in historical coins.   The restrictions on coins are as follows: 

I. Archaeological Material

B. Metal

9. Coins

a. Greek coins – Archaic coins, dated to 640 – 480 B.C., in electrum, silver and billon, that circulated primarily in Turkey; Classical coins, dated to 479 – 332 B.C., in electrum, silver, gold, and bronze, that circulated primarily in Turkey; and Hellenistic coins, dated to 332 – 31 B.C., in gold, silver, bronze and other base metals, that circulated primarily in Turkey. Greek coins were minted by many authorities for trading and payment and often circulated all over the ancient world, including in Turkey. All categories are based on find information provided in Thompson, M., Mørkholm, O., Kraay, C., Inventory of Greek Coin Hoards, 1973 (available online at and the updates in Coin Hoards I-X as well as other hoard and single find publications. Mints located in Turkey and surrounding areas are found in Head, B. V., Historia Numorum, A Manual of Greek Numismatics, 1911 (available online at

b. Roman provincial coins – Roman provincial coins, dated from the end of 2nd century B.C. to the early 6th century A.D., in gold, silver, and bronze and copper that circulated primarily in Turkey.

c. Byzantine period coins – Byzantine period coins, in gold, silver, bronze, copper coins, and sometimes electrum, dating from the early 6th century to the 15th century A.D., that circulated primarily in Turkey, (e.g., coins produced at mints in Nicaea and Magnesia under the Empire of Nicaea).

d. Medieval and Islamic coins – Medieval and Islamic coins, in gold, silver,bronze, and copper coins from approximately A.D. 1077 – 1770, that circulated primarily in Turkey.

While the regulations continue a current exemption for widely collected Roman Imperial coins, everything else down to 1770 is included, subject to the qualification that the coin type “circulated primarily in Turkey.”   This qualification apparently stems from the acknowledgement  found in the regulations themselves that ancient coins as a general rule circulated far from where they were minted.  Before the controversial decision to first impose import restrictions on Cypriot coins in 2007, the wide circulation of such coins, as well as the fact that individual types have often come down to us in hundreds or thousands of examples, was enough to keep ancient and early modern coins from being placed on the designated lists. Since that time, coins have usually been included, often misleadingly simply based on the fact that they were minted within the confines of what is today a modern nation state.  

If the phraseology here is meant to better comply with the Cultural Property Implementation Act’s (CPIA’s) language, it still only pays “lip service” to the statutory provisions.  Indeed, the “plain meaning” of the CPIA requires far more.  Import restrictions only apply to “designated archaeological material” under 19 U.S.C. §   2606.  This “designated archaeological material” is that “covered by an agreement” and “listed” under Section 2604.  19 U.S.C. § 2601 (7).  Section 2604 states that U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and/or the Treasury Department “may list this such material by type or other appropriate classification, but each listing made under this section shall be sufficiently specific and precise to insure that (1) the import restrictions under Section 2606 are applied only to the archaeological . . . material covered by the agreement . . . ; and (2) fair notice is given to importers . . . as to what material is subject to such restrictions.”  19 U.S.C. § 2604 (emphasis added).  The word “only” emphasizes the requirement that “designated archaeological material” must be only that covered by the agreement, i.e., “first discovered within” and “subject to export control by, the State Party.”   19 U.S.C. § 2601 (2).   The word “shall” emphasizes the mandatory nature of this Congressional direction; there is simply no discretion allowed.     See, e.g., Black's Law Dictionary 1407 (8th ed. 2004) (defining "shall" as "has a duty to; more broadly, is required to").  Therefore, under the CPIA, the proper standard is not whether a coin type “primarily” circulated within the confines of a given, modern nation state, but whether it can only be found there.  Moreover, even assuming the “circulated primarily” phraseology were correct, the regulation’s failure to identify which coins “circulated primarily in Turkey” raises the question whether the regulation may be constitutionally void for vagueness. 

In any event, the real problem with such a broad MOU with Turkey is that in seeking to “protect” any and all “Turkish Cultural Patrimony” from looting, the U.S. Government will further harm minority communities living abroad as well as the legitimate trade in “Turkish” artifacts with our major trading partners in the European Union and the United Kingdom.  The cumulative impact of import restrictions on behalf of authoritarian MENA governments has been very problematical because most minor artifacts (like coins) and family keepsakes simply lack the document trail necessary for legal import under the “safe harbor” provisions of CPIA, 19 U.S.C. § 2606. The CPIA only authorizes the government to impose import restrictions on artifacts first discovered within and subject to the export control of a particular country. (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 Department of State and CBP view this authority far more broadly. CBP has promulgated designated lists based on where items are made and sometimes found, not where they are actually found and hence are subject to export control. Additionally, 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.

What can be done?  Advocates for displaced minorities and trade and collector groups need to engage with their elected representatives.  Our elected representatives need to be sensitized to these concerns and asked for help in ensuring that any import restrictions are only be applied to archaeological or ethnological objects illicitly exported from Turkey after the June 16, 2021 effective date of the implementing regulations.  Otherwise, the U.S. Government will become Erdogan’s enforcer in clawing back virtually every object that can be considered “Turkish” on entry to the United States, and we will all be poorer for it.