During a time where disinformation is a product of hyper-partisanship, it is difficult to write about issues without feeding into the conspiracy theories of the day. The problem with conspiracy theories is that there are so many moving parts and so many people who would have to cooperate that when you really think about their content beyond the headline, you understand how difficult it would be for conspiracies to exist on the scale many suggest.
Conspiracy theories are not a new phenomenon. What is new is how fast they can spread and how the extremes on both side of the aisle can see the same circumstances are come up with radically different conclusions.
Rather than talk about conspiracies, we should look at the issues as more of the result of unintended consequences.The story of 1933 Saint Gaudens double eagle is truly an example of the law of unintended consequences. In an effort to rescue the economy, the cascading series of events that took the United States off the gold standard turned what was supposed to be an ordinary coin into one of the most intriguing stories of the last 80 years. If President Franklin D. Roosevelt or William Woodin, his Secretary of the Treasury, did things differently, would there be such as story? If not, then what would explain the 1804 dollar, a coin that was not produced in 1804 but reproduced by the U.S. Mint in many forms in later years?
For collectors of ancient coins, it is difficult to ignore the law of unintended consequences of Cultural Property Implementation Act (CPIA; 19 U.S.C. §§ 2601 et seq.) and how it is implementation by the State Department’’s Cultural Property Advisory Committee (CPAC). CPIA is the law that was created when the United States signed and the Senate approved the Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property 1970, often called the 1970 UNESCO Convention. The purpose of the treaty was to stop archaeological pillaging and trafficking in cultural property. In real terms, it would prevent the filling of the British Museum in London with the artifacts from ancient Egypt, Greece, the Middle East, North Africa, and any other place where the British tried to maintain their empire.Ideally, it is a good idea to allow the countries where these artifacts are found to preserve their history, but where does it end? Does the country have to save every piece of pottery, nail, scrap of fabric, or coin that is removed from the ground? Does the country need to keep eight versions of the tool to maintain its history or can they share those tools with other countries so that they can share in your history?
Although this may sound reasonable, Article 1 paragraph (e) of the treaty defines a category of cultural property as “antiquities more than one hundred years old, such as inscriptions, coins and engraved seals.” This means that any coin minted before 1914 can be considered cultural property and not only be subject to restrictions but confiscated if it cannot be proven that it was found or purchased legally prior to the convention.
With the different rules and laws around the world that has different documentation requirements that were more lax prior to the convention, how does the collector of ancient coins prove the coin that was bought in good faith from a dealer or another collector is not a country’s cultural property? A coin that could have changed hands hundreds of times since it arrived in the United States and enjoyed by its collectors may have had its more modern provenance lost to time and be subject to confiscation by the State Department and returned to the country of origin.
Although the CPAC tries to make the Memoranda of Understanding between the foreign country and the United States simple, the law and convention has a number of problems that have not been addressed in the 40 years it has been in existence. One problem is the existence of ancient Roman coins all over Europe. While the coins were minted in Rome, they were carried throughout the empire by the military, business people, and travelers that were eventually left behind. Since the coins were struck in Rome does it mean that the coins are the property of Italy or the country where they were found? If they country where they were found follows the convention to its letter, since the coins were not manufactured there are they really cultural objects and subject to these export and trade restrictions?
While those of us in the United States have been captivated by the Saddle Ridge Hoard of gold coins, people in the United Kingdom have been buying metal detectors in record number to scour the countryside looking for ancient coins left behind by their ancestors. Recently, someone found four coins dating back to the Iron Age that sparked an archeological search. The find included Roman coins that were not made in England or the land that would become England. Are these British artifacts?
As an aside, British law allows the finders to keep the coins. But since the full archeological search was managed by a British university in conjunction with the military, subsequent finds are the property of the crown since both are paid using public tax money. However, based on the wording of the 1970 UNESCO Convention, does Italy have a claim if they want to pursue those coins?
Recently, the CPAC held an open meeting to hear the new Egyptian government’s request to ban the import of artifacts dating through the time of the Ottoman Empire. Based on reporting by Richard Gierdroyc in Numismatic News, the questioning of the committee and the answers by those representing the archeological community not only would not grant an exemption for coins but would consider the confiscation of coins that could not be proven to have been legally purchased prior to the 1970 UNESCO Convention and have since fairly traded.
There is a very vocal crowd in the archeological community that would want to see everything dug up from the earth put into museums or otherwise locked away from the public. (Links to these people omitted on purpose) Using the pejorative “coinys” to describe collectors of ancient coins, these people have advocated for the confiscation of these coin so that they can be entombed behind display glass inside the state run museums of the world. They consider coinys profiteers who would rather trade in history than preserve history.
Collecting, in all of its forms, is a preservation of history. Whether you collect coins, stamps, political campaign buttons, old car emblems, license plates, old kitchen objects, books, toys, postcards, letters, and other ephemera, these items would be lost to time if people did not save them. Owning history helps connect us to our past and even helps us understand how the world has evolved.
History must be preserved and every country has the right to protect the property within its borders. If Egypt wants to protect its property and any future property that archeologists discover, then that should be their right. However, if Egypt wants to restrict United States collectors of coins or other artifacts that have been in circulation for many years, it is suggested that they end their hypocrisy by preying on the “we must do right by the world” policies of the United States and demand that the British Museum to return its holdings.