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US MOU with Italy Renewed

by Peter K. Tompa

January 28, 2016 – On January 15, 2016, the United States Government announce that it had renewed its Memorandum of Understanding (“MOU”) with Italy for another five years. Pursuant to that MOU, import restrictions on Greek, Punic, Etruscan, early Roman Republican and certain Imperial city coins of Italy will again be restricted from entry into the United States. For the complete “designated list” of “coins of Italian types” subject to import controls click here.

Thankfully, Roman Imperial coins remain free to enter the United States without cumbersome (and most often unobtainable) paperwork.

Import restriction on historical coins

Import restrictions on historical coins are a relatively recent development. For a quarter of a century, ancient coins were exempted from import restrictions. That is not surprising because restricting them fails to meet the criteria of the Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act (“CPIA”), a fact recognized by the State Department’s own Cultural Property Advisory Committee (“CPAC”) over the years. Ancient coins are common. They circulated widely in antiquity; one cannot readily assume they were “first discovered in” and “subject to the export control” of a single, modern nation state. They are widely collected world-wide so the “concerted international response requirement” cannot be met. There are less onerous “self-help” measures like regulating metal detectors.
Nevertheless, as part of a major expansion of restrictions onto all sorts of cultural goods, the State Department and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (“CBP”) first imposed import restrictions on ancient coins “of Cypriot type” in 2007 against CPAC’s recommendations. More significant restrictions then followed on ancient Chinese coins (2009), ancient Greek, Punic, Etruscan, Early Republican and certain Imperial “city coins” struck in Italy (2011), ancient Greek coins (2011) and on Bulgarian coins (2014).
These restrictions have been especially damaging because CBP has worded them based on “country of origin” or place of minting rather than “find spot” as required by the statue. This wording drastically expands the CPIA’s scope and focus from protecting specific archaeological sites to effectuating nationalistic claims to any artifact ever produced within that country’s ancient borders. Once specific coin types appear on a “designated list” they can only be imported legally with either an export certificate from the country for which restrictions have been granted or documentation proving they were out of that country before the date restrictions were announced.

Roman Imperial Coins are not part of the MOU

The State Department initially declined to extend import restrictions to Greek and Roman coins from Italy in 2001 and in 2006. At a November 2009 interim Cultural Property Advisory Committee (“CPAC”) hearing, Stefano de Caro, at the time the chief archaeologist for the Cultural Ministry, broadly hinted that Italy would seek new import restrictions on ancient coins. In response, the US numismatic community – assisted by colleagues in Italy as well as the rest of Europe – pressed for the continuance of the then current exemption. While this strategy was successful in generating approximately 2,000 collector letters and bipartisan correspondence from Congress favorable to our cause, the results were much less satisfying. Despite the best efforts of the numismatic community, when the MOU was renewed on January 19, 2011, it was announced that import restrictions were in fact being put in place on Greek, Punic and Etruscan coins, certain Roman Republican issues, and certain early Imperial City coins. On the other hand, likely due to those efforts, an exemption continued for Roman Imperial coins that has now been continued. 

The numismatic community again raised objections to the MOU with Italy when a renewal was discussed before CPAC in April 2015. While the absolute numbers of comments were down due to comment fatigue, 94% of the 326 responsive comments on the regulations.gov website either opposed renewal of the MOU or the continuance or expansion of restrictions onto Roman Imperial coins. Those numbers presumably again help convince the State Department to continue the current exemption for Roman Imperial coins. 

Temporary Action?

By the time the Italian MOU is discussed again, import restrictions will have been in place on most Italian archaeological objects for 20 years. Import restrictions will have been in place for coins for a 10 year period. This burden was never supposed to be permanent. Rather, restrictions were only supposed to be in force so long as necessary to allow the source country time to get control over looting. Here, due to aggressive police enforcement, Italy has already been successful in greatly limiting looting in places like Sicily.

What ails Italy’s magnificent cultural patrimony most now – gross under funding and continued mismanagement of its cultural resources – won’t be fixed by another MOU. It’s long past time the MOU with Italy should be allowed to lapse, but its burden on collectors and dealers will last for at least another 5 years.

Peter K. Tompa works with Bailey & Ehrenberg PLLC, Washington, D.C. His practice includes providing legal advice and counselling in matters related to trade in cultural artifacts.

He is running a blog on cultural property issues. If you want to follow, here’s the link.


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