Fred 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.