Tuesday 12 May 2009

ACCG Coin Import Stunt

The US government has resolved to contribute to the global fight against the looting of archaeological sites in order to create collectables for foreign markets by stricter import controls on certain types of antiquities. Instead of supporting this resolve, the US ancient coin dealers’ advocacy group the ACCG is intent on challenging it and overturning the somewhat modest measures instituted in the US to prosecute this policy (modest compared with the scale of the US market for these collectables).

The ACCG has accordingly just announced that it has ”launched phase two of a coordinated plan to challenge import restrictions on ancient coins” which, we recall, they totally refuse to accept can be regarded as archaeological finds. It is interesting to note that they held this announcement over until the publication in the Washington Post of a ('written to order'?) article representing Britain's laissez faire approach as the way forward to "protect the heritage" (though it does not explain how metal detcting and stripping sites of collectable "portable antiquities can be regarded as any kind of archaeological resource protection).

Anyway, this "stage two" apparently involved the stunt of attempting to import a group of “unprovenanced coins of Cypriot and Chinese type” ostensibly as a “test case” (Yeah, right). Presumably they are counting on US Customs refusing to release the coins and then the ACCG will use its members' money to fight a showcase trial to attempt to show that it had no authority to do so - thus allowing the maintenance of the no-questions-asked status quo on the antiquities market which is proving so damaging to the world's archaeological heritage. Something in which no doubt US ancient coin collectors would take great pride in the affirmation by a US court of their philistine self-interested disregard of the interests of others.

Quite apart from this stunt being an infringement of their own code of ethics (showing just how much that is worth), the method adopted suggests the people behind this stunt are cowards. The real test of the case would be to import coins from China and Cyprus and then show that the restrictions on the import of those coins imposed by the CCPIA were unlawful. They however decided to take an easier road, and import the coins from London (flight BA 229/16 from Heathrow to Baltimore Washington International Airport - 44.5 km from Peter Tompa's office).

These coins were apparently bought on the laissez faire open market in Britain. "As mandated, U.S. Customs detained these coins being imported from the United Kingdom. The ACCG now plans to use this detention as a vehicle to strike down the unprecedented regulations banning importation of whole classes of ancient coins". A question which Peter Tompa does not ask or answer is how these coins came onto the London market, given the international concerns about the looting of the Chines and Cyproit cultural (including archaeological) heritage.

This seems an ideal occasion to put the British Dealing in Cultural Objects (Offences) Act (Article 2(3)a, 3(1) and 3(4) etc.) into action. If ever there was a case for the British doing something about the trade in such items going on under their noses, this is it. Let the ACCG reveal the name and address of the British dealer(s) who supplied these coins and who apparently are not able to supply the importer with the required documentation to allow these items to pass through US customs.

Let us remind ourselves of what they are. It seems pretty straightforward to me [for example Sect. 307 (c)(2)(B)]. Ninety days seems perfectly adequate for Mr Tompa acting oin behalf of the importer to get in touch with the sellers and obtain the documentation required for US customs to release these objects. Of course the point is that Mr Tompa or the ACCG probably have no intention of actually doing this. They do not want the coins released, they want a confrontation.

US Customs through this seizure seem to have discovered a collector or dealer in the US (Washinton region?) whose name was presumably on the package of coins which it was attempted to be imported into the United States contrary to the provisions of the existing legislation. It seems to me obvious therefore that at least one branch of the US law enforcement agencies (Homeland Security maybe even) should interest themselves in what else this person or group of people have been buying and examine any records concerning past purchases of material for their collections (or business). I think the ACCG should inform us as a matter of public interest whose name was on that parcel (it will presumably figure in any court case anyway). Then the US authorities can tell us as a matter of public interest why that person's previous dealings with antiquities was not exposed to scrutiny.

The ACCG has published a photo of just a few of the contents of this "small packet of 23 very common, inexpensive, Cypriot and Chinese coins". The five coins are shown here from the ACCG website. They are Ban Liang and Wu zhu coins of (according to the ACCG) the Han dynasty. Those of us with experience of the corrosion products found on objects from a variety of soil types might look a bit askance at some of those coins. These are the types of patina often found on coins offered by Chinese coin dealers it is true. The vast majority of them however are out-and-out fakes (see an old list of fake sellers here). It is a telling situation that even types relatively common a while ago are now being faked and exported globally as the supplies of the originals from the more readily accessible sites dries up. I wonder just what it is the ACCG dealers in ancient coins have bought in Britain? Wouldn't it be ironic if these self-proclaimed numismatic experts and advocates of the no-questions-asked antiquities market turned out to have fallen victim to the coin faker which this same market supports? Let's have those Chinese coins validated, not by US dealers whose stocks are already contaminated by mountains of fake Chines cash coins, let the US taxpayer pay first for a proper validation of those objects by Chinese archaeologists with experience of excavated material from the region where Han dynasty coins are actually found. It may well turn out they do not need any export licences at all.

As for those (unillustrated) Cypriot coins, are they stolen? What is their source? Where were they acquired and how did they get there? Why is a British dealer handling them and what documentation can they provide to show this is legitimate? If they can provide none, then what is the ACCG doing dealing with them?

More to the point, when US customs releases these coins - one way or another, what is their destination? What will the ACCG do with them and where does this fit in with their own byelaws as a "non-profit organization promoting the free and independent collecting of coins from antiquity"?

Provocative questions - yes. The ACCG has deberately committed a provocative and controversial act, so invites controversy. I'd like to know what the average ethical US coin collector (not just of ancient coins taken from foreign archaeological sites and assemblages) thinks seeing the dealers that claim to represent their hobby deliberately and publicly flaunting the law of the US. Are such dealers really speaking for the law-abiding collector? Are such dealers really worthy of their trust and custom? Indeed are all dealers in coins in the US behind this controversial act, or are there some who can see that such behaviour does nothing for the image of coin collecting (and collecting as a whole)? We note that just a few days ago, both the International Association of Professional Numismatists (IAPN) and the Professional Numismatists Guild (PNG) were prosecuting this action together with the ACCG - I think we need to know if they are likewise involved in this second phase involving the attempted importation of these coins and how they explain any such involvement.

Let us note, in order that those 23 coins pass legally and legitimately through US customs, all that is needed is a piece of paper.

I strongly recommend Nathan Elkin's comments on this same affair which I found after I posted this. We seem to be in agreement about the significance of this "test case": "At least now the ACCG's leadership is showing its true colors perhaps more than ever before and its true aims and interests are becoming increasingly apparent. (Image: The King of Spades) ".

Photo: Collector's Hero or Pied Piper? - Peter Tompa.

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