A Token of Brexit

A few weeks ago I wrote about the potential effects of Brexit on markets should the Brits vote to leave the European Union. When the OUT vote won by a slim margin, there was an instant worldwide reaction. In the subsequent weeks, we have seen world markets react to everything. After an initial fall in markets because of Brexit they have recovered only to be sent back into uncertainty with world events.

The London PM Gold Fix was $1,265.12 before the polls closed on June 23. The next day, the London PM Gold Fix closed at $1,315.50 (4-percent increase). On July 15, the PM Gold Fix closed at $1,327.00, 4.9-percent increase since the vote. Experts are saying gold could continue to climb at the 4-percent rate for the near future.

Silver has been on a slow and steady rise for most of the spring also saw a bump following the Brexit vote. When the London Silver Fix closed at $17.29 on June 23, this was already a $3.29 increase (23.5-percent) from the January 4 first close of 2016 price of $14.00. After the results were announced, London Silver Fix closed at $18.04, a 4.3-percent increase. With the London Silver Fix closing at $20.14 on July 15 (16.48-percent increase), some pundits are suggesting that silver will continue to outperform gold for the near future.

When I wrote about Brexit, I also mentioned the “In/Out UK EU Referendum Medallion” produced by Chard(1964), a British metals dealer. After the post, the folks at Chard saw a small bump in sales from collectors the United States from a few of my readers. I was not paid to mention the medal. I just found the information online and thought it was an interesting idea. Shortly before the vote, someone at Chard contacted me and offered to send me some medals.

After a swim across the pond, the medals arrived in my physical mail last weekend. Even though I thought Brexit was a bad idea, the medals are still very cool. Design is the same on both medals. One is copper and the other is Abyssinian Gold, a type of brass made of 90-percent copper and 10-percent zinc that has a gold-like color. Medals are 31mm in diameter and weighs 14 grams making it a nice sized coin for flipping.

Chard sent two sets of the medals. I will keep one set and donate the other to my coin club’s annual auction whose proceeds will benefit the Scouts and other numismatic-related education in our region.

It appears that these medals can still be purchased for £2.95 each ($4.33 at the current exchange rate) plus shipping (estimated at £6.00 or $8.80) directly from Chard’s website. I am not making money from this endorsement. I just think it’s a fun collectible!

Static charts courtesy of Kitco.

I wouldn’t swallow this pill

1902 Panama 2½ Centesimos on the left. On the right is a national brand coated aspirin.

1902 Panama 2½ Centesimos on the left. On the right is a national brand coated aspirin.

Johnny: Making a Mint for $200
Alex: It’s the smallest coin struck by the U.S. Mint.
Johnny: What is the dime?
Alex: No, I’m sorry.
Alice: What is the penny?
Alex: Sorry, that’s not it either. Pat, do you want to guess?
Pat: What is the gold dollar coin?
Alex: No. The correct answer is “What is the 1904 Panama 2½ Centesimos coin?”

Weighing in at 1.25 grams, containing .900 silver (1.125 grams of silver), and measuring 10 millimeters in diameter, the coin nicknamed the Panama Pill is smaller than the silver three-cent piece, which was 14 millimeters in diameter, and the small gold dollar (Type 1) that was produced from 1849 through 1886. The gold dollar weighed 1.67 grams and was 15 millimeters in diameter.

Although there are smaller coins, such as the 9.09 millimeter Maximillian coin struck by the Mexico City Mint, this is the smallest ever produced by the U.S. Mint.

After Panama gained its independence in 1904, the new government made the decision to convert its monetary systems from the Columbian peso the balboa. Named in honor of the Spanish explorer Vasco Nunez de Balboa, the balboa would be subdivided into 100 centesimos to use for commerce. But Panama faced a similar problem that the United States faced over 100 years earlier. Since commerce was based on the Spanish Milled Dollar, which was 8 Reales, it was common for the coinage to be divided by 8 rather than 10. Simply, if something cost 1 Reale, referred to as 1 bit for when the milled dollar was physically cut for smaller denominations, a direct conversion would mean that an equivalent to the bit would be 12½ centesimos.

The United States solved this problem by striking the half-cent coin. Panama opted to strike a 2½ centesimos coin that would be paired with the 5, 10, 25, and 50 centesimos coins, all produced by the U.S. Mint. Rather than continually produce these coins until the bureaucracy caught up with commerce as was the case in the United States, Panama ordered 400,000 of these coins. The Panamanian people adapted to the new currency system, making this a one-year type coin.

During our monthly coin club meeting some members bring coins and boxes of foreign coins for other members to pick though. I went to the table where a member brought a box of loose foreign coins and someone found the Panama Pill in the box. Having never seen one before, when the searcher passed on the coin, I took the opportunity to purchase it.

Panama Pill next to a 1963 Sweden 10 Øre coin

Panama Pill next to a 1963 Sweden 10 Øre coin

Just for fun, I searched for the next smallest coin in the box. This found a 1963 Sweden 10 ore coin. It is 50-percent larger than the Panama Pill at 15 millimeters but is only slightly heavier at 1.4 grams. The difference is that the Pill was made of silver and the 10 ore is copper-nickel.

Having time to search a box of foreign coins can be a lot of fun. Things you read about in history books, read in the newspapers years ago, and nice designs can be found on many foreign coins. Even though the Eurozone uses a common currency with a country specific reverse, there is nothing like some of the coins that the individual countries produced before creating a common currency.

In that light, our top story of the night, Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still dead.

1957 Spain 50 Ptas

1957 Spain 50 Ptas

Good night and have a pleasant tomorrow.

Will Greece create new numismatic collectibles?

Greece 1€ coin

Greece 1€ coin depicts an owl, copied from an ancient Athenian 4 drachma coin (ca. 5th century BCE)

The debt crisis in Greece and their threat to drop the Euro as the unit of currency reminded me that this would present an interesting collectible opportunity.

Collecting numismatic items from distressed times can present an interesting challenge. While we have heard about Hard Times Tokens being a popular collectible, sales tax tokens produced during the Great Depression so that people could pay the exact fractions of a tax on low-value purchases.

Two of the more recent examples of numismatics based on distressed economic conditions are the Zimbabwe hyperinflation currency and the State of California’s Registered Warrants (IOUs). Although both have different origins from the Greek crisis, both show different ways of handling the situation.

When a country controls its own currency, it can manage that currency to maintain its value. In the United States, that is done by the Federal Reserve. It uses many programs from buying debt from its member banks to setting what it calls the Discount Rate, the rate that its member banks can borrow overnight to meet its liquidity requirements. In Zimbabwe, the central bank did not have the business and circulation in order to make this type of policy work because of the strife caused by wars and other ugliness. Their only choice was the print more money. The more money printed, the less it is worth. The less the money is worth the more it takes to buy daily goods and services. This result is that the more money that is added to the economy the higher inflation goes.

Zimbabwe’s 2009 $100 trillion hyperinflation note

Zimbabwe’s 2009 $100 trillion hyperinflation note

Zimbabwe gave us the hyper-inflated currency ranging from Z$10 to Z$100 trillion. It has become fun to own a note that makes you a billionaire or a trillionaire even though the actual value of the currency is worth less than the paper which it is printer. Since Zimbabwe has converted their system to the U.S. dollar, Zimbabweans will be converting the old inflation currency at the rate of Z$175 quadrillion (175,000,000,000,000,000) for US$5. An enterprising Zimbabwean could buy them for double and make more money selling the notes as souvenirs than converting them to U.S. dollars.

California was a different story. It was a self-made crisis of politics in 2009 between the Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Democratic-controlled legislature. Since neither side could agree on a budget, Schwarzenegger declared a fiscal emergency and ordered the printing of IOUs to pay for state debts.

California Registered Warrant

California Registered Warrant

Officially called Registered Warrants, the first of these IOUs were issued to pay personal tax refunds. They carried a 3.75-percent interest rate and were redeemable when the budget was passed or in early October, which ever came first. The crisis was averted when Schwarzenegger signed the budget on September 3 and redemption began on September 4. California State Comptroller’s Office stopped redeeming warrants as of November 10, 2010.

A friend who was living in California at the time was issued an IOU for a small personal tax refund. Rather than be burdened with the rigors of cashing the warrant, the paper is now part of his collection. However, since the warrants were addressed to specific people, it is not likely that these items will be immediately collectible. Many years from now it is probable that these warrants will be a curious collectible like the old Series E or War Bonds.

Greece does not control its own currency nor does it have any potential backing to issue warrants. Since Greece has not been seen as creditworthy, it cannot issue bonds at any interest rate because the markets are not interesting in buying Greek debt. Unless a deal can be struck with the rest of the European Union, Greece may not have a choice but exit the pact that uses the Euro as the common currency.

Exiting the Euro will bring back the Greek drachma.

2000 Greece 20 Drachma coin

2000 Greece 20 Drachma coin features Dionysios Solomos, a poet and author of the Greek national anthem.

The return of the drachma would create three numismatic collectibles. One would be the Euro coins with the Greece-specific reverse, whatever the Greek government issues in the interim, and then the new drachma. This would not apply to euro currency since each denomination uses the same design throughout of the Eurozone.

Before you search your ten pound bag of foreign coins looking for pre-Euro drachma, it is likely that Greece will keep those coins demonetized and not recognize them as official currency. If Greece wants to be able to control the amount of currency in circulation, then they will have to issue new coins and notes.

If Greece goes this route, experts are saying that the Greek government will allow the Euro to circulate alongside whatever is added to the market. Some people think it may take over a year to strike enough coins and print enough notes to be able to remove the Euro from circulation.

What will Greece do in the interim? Does the Greece Central Bank issue warrants like California did? If so, will the warrants become something that would become a collectible?

Greece 10,000 drachma note issued in 1995

10,000 drachma note issued by the Bank of Greece in 1995 features the image of Dr. George Papanicolaou, inventor of the Pap smear

Image Credits

  • Greek 1€ coin courtesy of EuroCoins.co.uk.
  • California Warrant courtesy of MyMoneyBlog.com
  • Zimbabwe $100 trillion note courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
  • 20 drachma coin courtesy of Numista.
  • 10,000 drachma note courtesy of the Bank of Greece.

One picture leads to an interesting look at a Mint’s history

Have you ever started looking for something only to find other items that are more interesting that what you were looking for?

Today’s find in the “To Do” pile is a picture of front of the Saint Petersburg Mint (translated here) taken by my father during his trip to Russia last year. The sign on front facade “моне́тный двор” translates to “Mint.”

Facade of the Saint Petersburg Mint

Facade of the Saint Petersburg Mint (2014)

The Saint Petersburg Mint is the oldest mint in Russia. Founded by Peter the Great in 1724, it was the primary producer of coins and currency up until the formation of the Russian Federation and adoption of their current constitution in 1993. The main mint facility is now located in Moscow.

Peter the Great founded Saint Petersburg in 1703 and made it the imperial capital of the Russian empire. Wanting it the to be the most modern city in the world, Peter was proactive in making sure that innovations in infrastructure and cultural life would be available for everyone in the capital. His efforts were fought by the nobility who thought they would lose their power if the government gave more to the people. Peter died in February 1725 from a massive internal infection without realizing many of his dreams for the city.

Following Peter I’s death, Peter’s second wife Catherine I and grandson Peter II, were crowed as tsar of the Russian empire. In 1738, following Catherine’s death in 1737, Peter moved the capital to Moscow but leaving many of the infrastructure behind. Peter II died in 1730 and was succeed by Anna, who was the daughter of Ivan V and niece of Peter I. Anna had been raised with full royal flourishes and chose to move the capital back to Saint Petersburg in 1732 and continue Peter’s westernization efforts for her own pleasure.

The era following Peter I saw the decline of the Russian empire including the degradation of Saint Petersburg as one of the world’s most cosmopolitan city. It wasn’t until the age of Russian Enlightenment under Catherine the Great when there would be improvements in Russian society and the great Mint.

The Russian Enlightenment was the inspiration for Charles Gascoigne to abandon his career as a lead engineer in the steel mills of Edinburg, Scotland and move to Saint Petersburg in 1786. In Saint Petersburg, Gascoigne de a name for himself as an engineer, inventor, and successful businessman. One of his specialties was to take failing businesses and use his engineering skills to modernize their production. One of the businesses Gascoigne turned around was a button foundry whose owner submitted medals made by the machinery to Catherine in order to win a contract to produce more.

Catherine died in 1796 and her son, Paul I was coronated as emperor. Paul was impressed with the details created by the machinery that he was more interested in hiring Gascoigne to update the old minting equipment. Gascoigne first sent engineers to perform the tasks but later took over the projects himself when it was discovered that the machinery being used was in severe disrepair. In 1798 he was assigned the task of determining what it will take to rehabilitate the old Mont.

When Gascoigne did his assessment, he found the entire facility in such disrepair that he proposed a full refurbishing of the facility including buying new machines to coin money. Gascoigne’s plan was to clear everything out of the building and rebuild the floors and walls leaving the outside alone. This included purchasing new equipment and creating new facilities to store and process metals. His plan also included ways to refortify the building that had be subject to thefts. In 1799, Paul issued an imperial degree to allow Gascoigne to execute his plan.

Unfortunately, Gascoigne was caught over charging the Russian bank for materials and was briefly arrested in late 1799. Claiming it was a misunderstanding, a Russian court fined him the amount allegedly overcharged and was allowed to return to the Mint to finish the work.

Gascoigne handed over the management of the mint to the Banking Yard Mint Office Department so that he could concentrate on finishing the reconstruction. Work was finally completed in October 1805 and was handed over the Assignation Bank, who occupied the Mint building. Founded by Catherine the Great, the Assignation Bank was the manager of the money supply in imperial Russia.

The Saint Petersburg Mint survived changes in bank rules in 1843 when the Assignation Bank was dissolved as part of financial reform and the Assignation ruble was recalled and replaced with state credit notes issued by the newly created State Bank. It continued to be the primary producer of coins following the Russian Revolution of 1917 when all of the paper note production was moved out of Saint Petersburg (renamed Leningrad) primarily to Moscow.

Starting in 1961, the Leningrad Mint began to strike commemorative and bullion coins for public sale, primarily to foreign collectors and investors. Although it was the primary mint for creating medals during the existence of the Soviet Union, much of the circulating production was being moved to other facilities within the country. As part of the economic reforms that ended communist rule and formed the Russian Federation, all production of circulating coins were moved to other facilities leaving the Leningrad Mint the country’s producer of medals and collector coins.

As part of the reformation, government offices were consolidated in the capital city of Moscow removing the Mint’s standing as the country’s primary facility. The Leningrad Mint, became a subsidiary facility as part of this reorganization. And with the vote by city residents to rename the city in 1991, it was renamed the Saint Petersburg Mint.

Kick start a challenge

Proposed design of the Yorkshire (UK) Challenge Coin.

Proposed design of the Yorkshire (UK) Challenge Coin.

Did you ever want to be part of creating and issuing a coin?

Think about how you would feel to help a community create a challenge coin for itself. In the process of helping the community, you can collect one of these challenge coins for yourself. If you provide enough assistance, then you can own one of the lowest numbered challenge coin.

Buried in my inbox was a note about a KickStarter project to create a challenge coin for Yorkshire, U.K. For as little as £6, (currently $9.94) you can own a coin numbered between 100 and 999. If you can afford £20 ($33.14), you can own a coin numbered between 10 and 20. Sorry, but the lower numbers have been purchased. All you have to do is go to KickStarter and fund the project.

For those not familiar with KickStarter, it is a website used to allow interested people to fund projects of their choosing. Kickstarter projects are mostly creative endeavors or involve some creativity in art, music, and technology where you receive awards for your level of funding. The financing model is called “crowd sourcing” and has been used effectively to launch films for the Sundance Film Festival, a skate park in Philadelphia, a photo exhibit on the site of the Berlin Wall, and the Fitbit smart watch.

KickStarter uses and all or nothing model meaning that if the project only receives the money if it is fully funded. If it does not, your credit card will not be charged and you will not receive your premium, of course. For the Yorkshire challenge coin, they are asking for £3,000 ($4,970.52). Currently, there is £220 pledged ($364.50) with 3 days to go. The funding drive ends on Saturday, August 30 at 1:36 AM EDT.

What the heck… it seems like a very cool idea. Let’s see if we can help put the project over the top and get it funded. Even if you do not want the coin, you can spare £3 (about $5) to help!

Note that there are extra postage requirements for shipping outside of the United Kingdom.

D-Day + 70 years

Operation Overlord was the largest amphibious invasion in history.

Originally scheduled on May 1, it was rescheduled to June 5 and then June 6 because of weather.

Commanded by Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, the invading force consisted of 156,000 Allied troops using 5,000 ships and landing craft bringing on shore 50,000 vehicles with overhead support from 11,000 planes and 13,000 paratroopers.

Across 50 miles of Normandy coast line, the United States forces were assigned Utah and Omaha beaches, the British Army was assigned to Gold and Sword beaches, and the Canadian Army invaded Juno beach.

Operation Bodyguard created six decoy invasions as a distraction to the Germans so as to divert their attention from the intended invasion at Normandy. Gen. George S. Patton, considered the most skillful tank commander in U.S. military history, commanded a fake mission to invade Pas-De-Calais.

Omaha Beach was the focus of the attack because it was the most heavily defended beach.

On the first day, 4,414 Allied soldiers were confirmed dead.

Victory was declared on July 21, 1944 when the Allied forces captured Caen, one of the major objectives of the invasion.

The Normandy American Cemetery in Colleville-Sur-Mer is the final resting place for 9,387 Americans. Across its 172.5 acres sits 9,238 crosses and 149 Stars of David where 41 sets of brothers and 3 Medal of Honor recipients rest. The Walls of the Missing is engraved with the names of 1,557 soldiers missing in action.

On this, the 70th Anniversary of D-Day, the day Operation Overlord began, there is one more statistic that should not exist:

The number of commemorative coins issued by the United States to honor those that served and gave their lives to help begin the liberation of Europe from the worst criminal of all time: ZERO!

Although the U.S. Mint did issue a World War II 50th Anniversary commemorative coin in 1995, this country should honor those who participated in the largest amphibious invasion in history and set the world on a safer course.

With the number of veterans of that day dwindling as they are all nonagenarians, I would like to thank them for their service and the families of the fallen for their service. I only wish that congress would realize that their bickering over nonsense with flags on their lapels pales in comparison to the sacrifices made on that day in France. They just do not get it.

Canadian $10 Commemorative of the 70th Anniversary of D-Day featuring the obverse portrait of King George VI, the reigning monarch at the time of the invasion.

Canadian $10 Commemorative of the 70th Anniversary of D-Day featuring the obverse portrait of King George VI, the reigning monarch at the time of the invasion.

70th Anniversary of D-Day 2014 Alderney £5 BU Coin from the Royal Mint.

70th Anniversary of D-Day 2014 Alderney £5 BU Coin from the Royal Mint.

Bimetallic 2 € commemorative issue from the Monnaie de Paris (Paris  Mint)

Bimetallic 2 € commemorative issue from the Monnaie de Paris (Paris Mint)

Reference: D-Day by the Numbers from the History Channel
Coin images courtesy of the Royal Canadian Mint, Royal Mint, and Monnaie de Paris.

Staid collectors need to expand their horizons

Harry Potter Souvenir 20 Stamp BookA story appeared in the November 18, 2013 edition of The Washington Post that the hard-core stamp collectors, the ones that will buy the products released by the United States Postal Service, are apoplectic about selection of Harry Potter as a subject for a series of stamps.

The objections are two-fold. First, Harry Potter is not American and neither is the author of the series J.K. Rowling. The other reason is that the Postal Service bypassed the Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee (CSAC) to make the deal with the various commercial concerns to issue the 20-stamp tribute to the boy wizard.

Unlike the Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee, the CSAC is not mandated by law. It was established in 1957 “to select subjects of broad national interest for recommendation to the Postmaster General that is both interesting and educational.” Apparently, there has been tension between the Postal Service and the CSAC.

Like coin collecting, stamp collecting has been in decline as the awareness and usage of their product declines. Coin collectors can point to the decline in coin collecting following the big start of the 50 State Quarters® program, stamp collectors can point to the growth of email, e-publishing, and electronic stamp capabilities as part of the decline of the postal service. The Postal Service feels it has to do something in order to bring new collectors to buy its goods.

The US Postal Service pays tribute to their own famous error, the Inverted Jenny

The US Postal Service pays tribute to their own famous error, the Inverted Jenny

Unlike the U.S. Mint, whose products are very heavily regulated, the only regulation the Postal Service must meet is the price of postage. Once the postage rates are set, there are no laws or rules that govern how postage is demonstrated on the piece of mail. In fact, the Postal Service can print any stamp they want to honor any person, animal, object, historical incident, and even their own mistakes as they have by producing a tribute to the Inverted Jenny postage stamp, stamp collecting’s most famous error.

The Postal Service has been an independent agency of the federal government since 1971. Their operating expenses largely come from the sale of postage and the collection of duties for cross-border movement of the mail. Other revenues are generated from the sales of collectibles including special sets, first-day covers, and other collectibles. Interesting items sell well including the Elvis Presley stamps which were the Postal Service’s bestseller.

One area of regulation that has hurt the Postal Service was a law passed in 2005 that forced the agency to pre-pay retirement benefits for the next 75-years in a series of very large lump-sum payments. Their inability to meet the obligation and maintain the 75-year cushion has been widely reported causing the agency to lose significant revenues while trying to adhere to this ridiculous statutory requirement. No other agency or company is required to pre-pay 75-years of retirement benefits.

Knowing that they have to generate new revenues, Postmaster General Patrick R. Donahoe was quoted as saying that the Postal Service “needs to change its focus toward stamps that are more commercial.”

In other words, Donahoe recognizes that the organization he leads has to think differently in order to attract new customers.

The reaction from the philately community is almost the same as I would expect from the numismatic community if this was done by the United States Mint.

New Zealand Mint produces Monopoly coins for the Island nation of Niue. Did you pass Go?

New Zealand Mint produces Monopoly coins for the Island nation of Niue. Did you pass Go?

This is not the case everywhere. Although there have been complaints about the Royal Canadian Mint’s expanded catalog, their products are selling and winning awards. Others complain about the blatant commercialism at the New Zealand Mint for partnering with commercial vendors to issue non-circulating legal tender coins with themes from Star Wars, Monopoly, and Dr. Who? Other than being expensive, is there really anything wrong with these offerings?

Next year, the U.S. Mint will issue a curved coin to honor the National Baseball Hall of Fame. While it will be a round coin, the coin will be concave when looking at its obverse. While the closest thing to “different” the U.S. Mint has produced was the 2009 Ultra High Relief Gold Coin, the sales of the Baseball Hall of Fame Commemorative coins may do well because of the theme and they are different.

2007 Somalia Motorcycle Non-circulating Legal Tender Coins

2007 Somalia Motorcycle Non-circulating Legal Tender Coins

If the Baseball Hall of Fame Commemorative coins do sell well, will congress authorize other commemoratives that are not round and flat? Will congress allow the U.S. Mint to produce motorcycle or car-shaped coins? What about coins with commercial themes?

“Harry Potter is not American. It’s foreign, and it’s so blatantly commercial it’s off the charts,” said John Hotchner who was once president of the American Philatelic Society and served on the CSAC for 12 years. Hotchner should be asked about the stamps to commemorate Pixar animation, Disney, and muscle cars. Even though I am a coin collector, I have bought the muscle car commemorative panel along with sheets of motorcycle stamps and a collector book with the stamp of Edgar Allen Poe because I was interested in the theme.

Louis Braille was not American nor did he do his work in America, but congress authorized a commemorative issued in 2009

Louis Braille was not American nor did he do his work in America, but congress authorized a commemorative issued in 2009

Both the U.S. Mint and the United States Postal Service rely on generating collector interest to expand their revenue base. Unlike the U.S. Mint, the Postal Service does not have the benefit of bullion to increase its revenues. If both organizations have to be innovative in order to increase revenues, then it should not be a problem. It is a hobby—collect what you like and like what you collect. If you do not like the collectible, do not add it to your collection.

Coin and stamp collectors have to take their heads out of the past. Stamps are losing to email and coins are losing to credit cards. Neither are going away anytime soon, but if there is to be a future both the U.S. Mint and U.S. Postal Service has to be innovative in order to attract new collectors. While the U.S. Mint is handcuffed by the whims of a dysfunctional congress, the Postal Service can capitalize on one of the most popular books and stories of this generation. If it helps promote stamp collecting and allows them to sell more products, then the Postmaster General should be congratulated for a job well done.

Maybe there is something that can be done to add to the catalog of the U.S. Mint in order to generate more interest. Until then, this muggle will be ordering something from the Harry Potter collectibles offered by the Postal Service for his wife who is a Harry Potter fanatic!

What do you think? Weigh in on the discussion in the comments (below).


  • All stamp images courtesy of the United States Postal Service.
  • Monopoly coin image courtesy of the New Zealand Mint.
  • Louis Braille Commemorative image courtesy of the U.S. Mint.
  • Somalia motorcycle coin images are courtesy of the author.

The law of unintended consequences

Ancient CoinsFred and Wilma (not their real names) are friends who decided to celebrate their empty nest by taking a trip to the Mediterranean after dropping their youngest child off at college. Fred is what I respectfully call a hacker. He is a wizard programming computers and someone who I go to in order to understand some of the more esoteric aspects of computer exploits he researches. In his spare time, Fred plays with his computers and tinkers with electronics. Fred is also known as an overgrown boy scout. He is contentious about his work, children, and the activities he is involved with. Fred is probably the most honest person I know.

Fred is not a coin collector and has no interest in collecting coins even though he does own the 2004 Thomas Edison commemorative coin and the 2005 Albert Einstein 2 Shekel proof coin from Israel because these are two people he admires. On many occasions, Fred has said that he did not understand what I saw in collecting coins. Even after showing him my original Lincoln cent folder with coins I have found in change dating back to when I started collecting, he did not understand the lure of the chase.

While sitting on a beach along the Mediterranean, Wilma started to dig in the sand around a sleeping Fred to have fun at his expense. After she dug nearly two feet down, Wilma unearthed metal object that she originally thought was trash. After waking Fred and watching him roll into her newly dug hole, Fred brushed himself off and looked at what she found. A trip to the water to rinse off the items to find three ancient coins and a shell. The way it was described to me was that the coins were sitting in the shell as if it were a change holder. They dug some more and found three more coins. To some degree, he began to understand the thrill of the chase.

With the help of the hotel concierge, Fred and Wilma found a coin dealer who spoke English to ask about the coins. After talking with the dealer they found that the coins were common and would only be worth the equivalent of a few dollars. Undeterred, the coins were placed in a small bag and throw in the bottom of their carry on luggage as souvenirs and continued with their vacation.

A few days later, Fred and Wilma packed their bags and went to the airport to return home. At their host country’s departure screening, Fred was asked if there was anything to declare. Fred, being an overgrown boy scout, declared everything—even things he did not have to declare. As the officers were inspecting the items on the table, one picked up the bag with the coins and asked about coins. Fred showed the officer the written estimate from the dealer thinking that would resolve any issue.

According to Fred, the officer took coins and the estimate to another officer he described as having more decorations on his uniform. This higher ranking officer looked at the coins and paper while discussing the situation in their native language. After a moment, Fred became concerned and Wilma became nervous.

Another officer walked over with the higher ranking officer and acted as a translator as it was explained to Fred that the coins were “cultural antiquities” and would be confiscated. Fred was not happy but he accepted the situation until the translator said that Fred and Wilma would be detained while the officials investigated. They were allowed to gather their luggage and were escorted to a nearby room.

After waiting for an hour, another official came into the room and spoke to Fred and Wilma in English. Fred explained how he obtained the coins and why he was taking them home. After the official started questioning them as if they were criminals Fred asked to speak with the United States Embassy.

Fred and Wilma were escorted by local police to two separate facilities to be incarcerated pending an investigation. The facilities were in separate parts of town since these were not co-ed accommodations. They waited two days before seeing anyone other than the guards.

Two days later, both were escorted to a local judge and said they were being charged with trying to smuggle antiquities out of the country. An attorney was appointed to represent them. The attorney did not speak English and only wanted them to plead guilty for a three-year sentence. Thankfully, there was an American in the courtroom who told the attorney that he would contact the U.S. Embassy and not to plead on the case.

The next day, someone from the Embassy was able to have Fred and Wilma released to their custody, recovered their luggage, and let them stay in the embassy while trying to resolve the situation.

Obviously, the embassy accommodations were better than what they had at the local jail. Fred described the embassy staff as very nice including the natives who worked non-diplomatic jobs. Unfortunately, they could not leave the embassy since they were technically under house arrest. Although it was a gilded cage it was still a cage.

It took nine days to resolve the issue which Fred was told was lightning speed for that country. The coins were left in the country they were visiting, which Fred offered to do at the airport when confronted by the officials. They were driven to the airport by a U.S. military driver and escorted to the screening area by a member of the diplomatic staff who ensured their passports were returned and that they were allowed to board the plane.

The plane landed in a more friendly country where Fred and Wilma were met by local and U.S. officials for a debrief. Although the debrief was friendly, it did come after a stressful period in another country and lasted a few hours. Eight hours after landing in London, Fred and Wilma was en route back to the United States.

The country where this incident occurred is allegedly friendly with the United States but that did not stop the officials at the airport from treating them with suspicion over the possession of a few common ancient coins. Based on Fred’s description of the coins, I asked a dealer who said that $20 would be an average retail price for the coins. When asked if Fred wanted to buy similar coins, Fred could not decline fast enough!

I have written several posts about the impact of the Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act (CPIA; 19 U.S.C. §§ 2601 et seq.) and the potential for foreign countries to use Memoranda of Understanding that the State Department’s Cultural Property Advisory Committee (CPAC) agrees to without considering citizen comments. The CPAC has said that the collateral issues raised by the comments are baseless. Fred can tell them otherwise.

Fred said that the embassy would not answer questions about what happened. Neither did the government officials during their layover in Europe. He was told that they should be thankful that this “only” lasted two weeks because it could have taken two months or even two years to resolve.

Next time the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild (ACCG) asks for assistance in addressing a call for comments from the CPAC regarding a foreign country’s MOU request, please remember the plight of Fred and Wilma. Although their ordeal lasted “only” two weeks, the next person may not be as lucky and find themselves in the jail of a country whose laws are far less humane than the United States.

Image of the ancient coins courtesy of NGC. These are not the coins the story is about.

The Hopi Tribe shows us why we should care

While the State Department’s Cultural Advisory Committee (CPAC) continues to kowtow the the whims of foreign government looking to use the Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act (CPIA; 19 U.S.C. §§ 2601 et seq.) as some sort of virtual tool to attack the United States, little seems to be said by the foreign archeological supporters when a Paris court ruled for a French auction house allowing them to sell Native American artifacts.

The case involves the sale of 70 artifacts from Arizona’s Hopi Tribe by the Paris auction house Néret-Minet. Hopi tribe members and historians believe that the items were illegally obtained. Representatives from Néret-Minet claim that the items were purchased legally from a collector in the United States.

A visitor looks at antique tribal masks revered as sacred ritual artifacts by a Native American tribe in Arizona which are displayed at an auction house in Paris April 11, 2013. (REUTERS/John Schults)

A visitor looks at antique tribal masks revered as sacred ritual artifacts by a Native American tribe in Arizona which are displayed at an auction house in Paris April 11, 2013. (REUTERS/John Schults)

Following the ruling, Néret-Minet went ahead with the auction. According to The New York Times, the auction generated $1.2 million in sales (with buyer’s premiums). Five of the 70 items did not sell and not sold for less than their estimated value.

According to The New York Times:

Before starting, the auctioneer, Gilles Néret-Minet, told the crowd that the sale had been found by a judge to be perfectly legal, and that the objects were no longer sacred but had become “important works of art.” He added, “In France you cannot just up and seize the property of a person that is lawfully his.”

So let me get this straight, religious objects that are allegedly protected by the same treaties as ancient coins and United States law can be sold as “art objects” while foreign governments confront a dealer on a bourse floor while the State Department does little to protect collectors and those who have legitimate claims?

If France can do this with items of religious and cultural significance to the Hopi tribe, then will happen to the coin collecting hobby? I know some people can take their hobby seriously, but it is not religion. Most countries already have examples of the coins in question, so why are additional examples “culturally significant.” Remember, it was reported that when a dealer was approached in Baltimore by representatives of a foreign government, they were only interested in the more expensive coins and not the common coins from the same country with a lesser value.

The State Department is not doing enough to protect the American people, whether it is to protect what is really culturally significant items like the artifacts from the Hopi tribe or the abuse of international law as demonstrated by the actions of the State Department’s CPAC and the confrontation in Baltimore. This is something that must be addressed by the president!

Please take action!

I renew my request that all of my readers to go to http://wh.gov/MD2O and sign the petition. Share it on social media. I made it easy—just see the widget at the top of the right column. Petitions require 100,000 signatures in order to be answered by the White House. So far there are five signatures (THANK YOU!). Let’s see if we can motivate the coin collecting community to add more before you will not be able to own any foreign coin older than 100 years old!

A French supporter of the Indian cause, who refused to give his name, left, holds a flag of the American Indian Movement and an American exchange student, member of the Arizona's Hopi tribe, Bo Lomahquahu, right, stand outside of the Druout's auction house to protest the auction of Native American Hopi tribe masks in Paris, Friday, April 12, 2013. A contested auction of dozens of Native American tribal masks went ahead Friday afternoon following a Paris court ruling, in spite of appeals for a delay by the Hopi tribe, its supporters including actor Robert Redford, and the U.S. government. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)

A French supporter of the Indian cause, who refused to give his name, left, holds a flag of the American Indian Movement and an American exchange student, member of the Arizona’s Hopi tribe, Bo Lomahquahu, right, stand outside of the Druout’s auction house to protest the auction of Native American Hopi tribe masks in Paris, Friday, April 12, 2013. A contested auction of dozens of Native American tribal masks went ahead Friday afternoon following a Paris court ruling, in spite of appeals for a delay by the Hopi tribe, its supporters including actor Robert Redford, and the U.S. government. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)

Why you should care about restrictions on collecting ancient coins

Ancient Coin Collectors GuildIn a test lawsuit filed by the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild (ACCG), the group sued the federal government over the granting of import restrictions and confiscation of coins that foreign government have declared cultural property. The suit filed by ACCG challenges recent Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the State Department and the cultural regulators of Cypress and China under the Convention on Cultural Property. On March 25, 2013, the case that ACCG appealed to the Supreme Court was denied a hearing (petition for certiorari).

Over the last few years, the Coin Collectors Blog has asked readers to sign various petitions and write to the Department of State to stop restrictions on ancient coins. To understand why this is necessary, we have to understand why this is happening.

For a country to request import restrictions and confiscation of cultural property, they are required to send a letter to the State Department asking the United States to enter into an MOU to restrict the import and export of what the asking country considers cultural property as defined by 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 the treaty was to stop archaeological pillaging and trafficking in cultural property. In other words, it would significantly hamper the career of Indiana Jones.

EID·MAR silver coin commemorating the death of Cæsar on March 15

EID·MAR silver coin commemorating the death of Cæsar on March 15

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 1913 can be considered cultural property and not only be subject to restrictions but confiscated.

Under the Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act (CPIA; 19 U.S.C. §§ 2601 et seq.), the law passed by congress upon the Senate’s ratification of the treaty in 1983, requests are reviewed by the Cultural Property Advisory Committee (CPAC) in the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. The CPAC authors the MOU based on the input from the requesting country and publishes the results for public comment. By law, the public has 30 days to provide comments on the proposed MOU. However, it appears that it is very rare that the CPAC makes any changes after the end of the comment period.

The MOU undergoes whatever department review is required and then is signed by the Secretary of State on behalf of the president and made part of the policy and rule provisions granted to the Executive Branch by congress (as part of the CPIA).

The original case was filed in a Fourth Circuit Federal Court in Baltimore. In its suit, ACCG claims that the rules agreed to the by CPAC are arbitrary and made by a panel that does not understand how their decisions affect coin collectors. Even though the intent has not to work against ancient coin collectors, governments have used the law to restrict the export of newly discovered ancient to the United States. The court ruled that it did not have standing to change the law since there is no constitutional question. The appellate division of the Fourth Circuit in Richmond confirmed this ruling in October 2012.

ACCG appealed the ruling to the Supreme Court. On March 25, the court denied the ACCG’s petition for hearing. The Supreme Court’s action means that the result of the test case is only binding in the Fourth Circuit (Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia). In other words, someone has to have been harmed by the results of the law before the courts will agree to hear a case.

Last month, Patrick Heller wrote in Numismatic News that he spoke with a dealer “who had been visited by representatives of a foreign government seeking to confiscate the valuable ancient coins issued by that nation if the dealer could not provide a chain of custody proving that the coins were legally owned before that nation banned the export of ‘national treasures.’” Heller said that the representative were only interested in the more expensive coins and not the common coins from the same country but whose value was much less.

While these issues have mostly affected ancient coin dealers and collectors, some countries have attempted to petition the United States government to make the cut-off date of what is considered cultural property for coins later. In one case, China has suggested that coins from as late as the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) should be considered cultural property but has not petitioned the CPAC for an update to their MOU with the United States. The problem is that these countries have been trying to exercise their “authority” under the 1970 convention putting U.S. dealers and collectors at disadvantage with the rest of world for political reasons.

If the State Department’s CPAC will not work on behalf of the American people, then collectors must stand up and tell the Obama administration it is time to stop. In fact, I created a petition at the White House website. This petition reads as follows:

we petition the obama administration to:
Protect coin collectors from countries using cultural property to prevent the fair trade of ancient rare coins
Using the Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act, foreign countries have been asking the State Department’s Cultural Property Advisory Committee to update Memoranda of Understand in such a way that could harm the ancient coin collecting in the United States by declaring coins “Cultural Property” under the 1970 UNESCO convention. The problem is that these countries are only asking the US for restrictions.

In a recent case, a dealer was confronted at a coin show by foreign officials seeking to confiscate expensive ancient coins under a loose interpretation of the law. This is going to harm the small business coin dealers involved.

We the undersigned ask the administration to end the restrictions on the buying and selling of foreign coins mistakenly included in these acts.

Please take action!

I ask all of my readers to go to http://wh.gov/MD2O and sign the petition. And share it on social media. Petitions require 100,000 signatures in order to be answered by the White House. So far there is one signature (mine). Let’s see if we can motivate the coin collecting community to add more before you will not be able to own any foreign coin older than 100 years old!

Logo courtesy of the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild.
Image of the Eid Mar silver coin courtesy of dig4coins.com.

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