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Enough Already: Oppose Yet Another Renewal of the Italian MOU

by Peter Tompa, Washington, DC

February 26, 2015 - The State Department has announced that Italy has requested a renewal of its current Memorandum of Understanding (“MOU”) with the United States. That MOU first authorized import restrictions on Italian cultural artifacts from the Pre-Classical, Classical and Imperial Roman periods in 2001. The restrictions were extended 2006 and again in 2011. The 2011 renewal added new import restrictions on Greek, early Republican and Provincial coins from the early Imperial Period. Now, it’s quite possible that the archaeological lobby, which actively opposes private collecting, will press for import restrictions on Roman Imperial Coins - the heart of ancient coin collecting - as well. Accordingly, if one feels strongly about their continued ability to collect Roman Imperial and other historical coins and artifacts, they should comment on the regulations.gov website. Why? Because silence will only be spun as acquiesce. So, serious collectors should oppose yet another renewal as unnecessary and detrimental to the appreciation of Italian culture and the people to people contacts collecting brings.

The Law
The Cultural Property Implementation Act (“CPIA”) contains significant procedural and substantive constraints on the executive authority to impose import restrictions on cultural goods. Restrictions at issue here may only be applied to archaeological artifacts of “cultural significance” “first discovered within” and “subject to the export control” of a specific UNESCO State Party. They must be part of a “concerted international response” of other market nations, and can only be applied after less onerous “self-help” measures are tried. They must also be consistent with the general interest of the international community in the interchange of cultural property among nations for scientific, cultural, and educational purposes. Renewals of MOUs are to be judged under the same standards.

The Cultural Property Advisory Committee (“CPAC”) is to provide the executive with useful advice about this process. The CPIA contemplates that CPAC is to recommend whether import restrictions are appropriate as a general matter and also specifically whether they should be placed on particular types of cultural goods. In the past, CPAC has recommended against import restrictions on coins. Initially those recommendations were followed, but beginning with the renewal of Cypriot import restrictions in 2007, this has changed. Now, there are restrictions on coins made in Cyprus, China, Italy, Greece and Bulgaria and its likely restrictions on at least some Egyptian coins will follow.

Import restrictions make it impossible for Americans to legally import collectors’ coins widely and legally available worldwide. Foreign sellers are typically unwilling or unable to certify the coin in question (which can retail as little as $1) left a specific UNESCO State Party before restrictions were imposed as required by the CPIA and U.S. Customs and Border Protection rules. Restrictions have drastically limited Americans’ abilities to purchase historical coins from abroad and have negatively impacted the cultural understanding and people to people contacts collecting fosters.

The Request
U.S. collectors, museums and the small businesses of the numismatic and antiquities trade have had to endure an embargo on unprovenanced artifacts “of Italian type” for some 15 years. Another renewal will make that 20 years.

Import restrictions were never meant to be permanent. Rather, they were aimed cutting market demand to allow time for a source country to get its own house in order.

In one sense this has worked. In the past 15 years, Italy has mounted aggressive police actions that have greatly diminished looting in the country. Yet, all this enforcement effort has done little to actually protect Italy's “cultural patrimony”. During this same period, gross underfunding, bureaucratic ineptitude and corruption have hamstrung Italy's own care for even major sites like Pompeii. And at the same time, promises of long term loans to museums made by Rome as a quid pro quo for import restrictions have faded with devolution of power to regions such as Sicily. So, it would seem any minimal benefits that import restrictions have provided are now far outweighed by the damage they do to legitimate collecting and the appreciation of Italian culture and people to people contacts it brings.

Enough is enough. It's time to scrap current import restrictions and instead promote real cultural cooperation rather than more confrontation. This is particularly true for common artifacts like ancient coins. It has never made sense to place restrictions on ancient coins, particularly when there is large, open and legal internal market for the exact same sort of coins within Italy itself. It makes even less sense to contemplate new restrictions on ancient Roman Imperial Coins. These originally circulated throughout Europe, the Middle East and even parts of Asia and have been actively collected since the Renaissance. They “belong” not to Italy, but to us all.

What You Can Do
Admittedly, CPAC - packed as it is these days with ardent supporters of the archaeological lobby - seems to be little more than a rubber stamp. Still, to remain silent is to give the cultural bureaucrats and archaeologists with an ax to grind against collectors exactly what they want - the claim that any renewal will not be controversial.
So, to submit comments electronically, go to the Federal eRulemaking Portal, enter the Docket No. DOS-2015-0010-0001, and follow the prompts to submit a comment. Please note comments may be posted only until MARCH 20, 2015 at 11:59 PM.

Please also note comments submitted in electronic form are not private. They will be posted on the site http://www.regulations.gov. Because the comments cannot be edited to remove any identifying or contact information, the Department of State cautions against including any information in an electronic submission that one does not want publicly disclosed (including trade secrets and commercial or financial information that is privileged or confidential pursuant to 19 U.S.C. 2605(i)(1)).

What should you say? Provide a brief, polite explanation about why the renewal should be denied or limited. Question CPAC why it’s necessary to renew this MOU yet again when looting is under control and the real jeopardy to Italy’s cultural patrimony comes from poor stewardship by the Italian State. Indicate how restrictions will negatively impact your business and/or the cultural understanding and people to people contacts collecting provides. Coin collectors should add that it’s typically impossible to assume a particular coin (especially Roman ones) was “first discovered within” and “subject to the export control” of Italy. You might add that Italian historical coins are very common and widely and legally available for sale elsewhere, and point out the absurdity of restricting coins freely available in Italy itself. Finally, you don’t have to be an American citizen to comment - you just need to be concerned enough to spend twenty or so minutes to express your views on-line. Comments from Italian collectors are particularly welcome!

Click here to get to the Cultural Property Observer where this text was first published.

More information about the MOU of 2011 between Italy and the United States you may find in this article in CoinsWeekly.

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