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Illegal Export of Coins Hurts Hobby Image
By Richard Giedroyc, World Coin News
July 18, 2013

This article was originally printed in World Coin News.
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Coin collectors in the United States are already on high alert regarding changes that could take place in laws regarding the import or ownership of ancient and other coins. Neither the coins recently surrendered to Bulgaria from the United States nor a smuggling case recently reported in Ireland put the import of or collecting of coins in a favorable light.

According to the Sofia news agency website, “valuable antique coins” planned to be sold “at a very high price” in the United States were turned over to Bulgarian Ambassador Elena Poptodorova May 21 by U.S. authorities. The web site indicated U.S. Immigration Customs and Enforcement’s ICE was involved in the investigation. The ceremony held in New York at which the coins were surrendered was attended by Special Representative of the Customs Control Office in New York, James Hayes.

Poptodorova was quoted as saying the coins are “where they belong – in their homeland Bulgaria. It is a special privilege for me to receive on behalf of Bulgarian people part of our rich antique heritage that was taken from us illegally.”

Bulgaria has very strict laws regarding the export of any item determined to be antique and of value to the nation as being part of its cultural patrimony. Bulgaria is among several nations demanding the return of some items of antiquity already in museums and private collections in the United States, claiming the items are their cultural patrimony.

According to Ancient Coin Collector Guild spokesman and Washington attorney Peter Tompa, “While everyone should follow the law, it should be noted that collecting and trading in the exact same type of coins is legal in Bulgaria and Bulgaria’s failure to offer export permits is an example of cultural property retentivism. With a free internal market, it cannot have much to do with protecting archaeological sites.”

The Irish newspaper The Independent was among newspapers leading the charge following an investigation into coins illegally looted in that country. A May 22 The Independent article lead quotes the keeper of Irish antiquities with the national museum, exclaiming: “no site was safe after a hoard of almost 900 historical items was recovered from a looter with a metal detector!”

A rather dramatic follow up statement reads, “There has been a rise in people illegally using equipment to trawl historical locations for archaeological finds, with some then offered up for sale on the internet!”

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Further in the story the latter statement is clarified. It was learned the coins were being smuggled due to their having been imaged on the Internet. Although the items illegally excavated in Ireland with a metal detector number nearly 900 pieces the coins involved consist of a hoard of 28 medieval hand hammered silver pennies ranging from the reigns of Edward I to Edward III and dating from 1272 until 1377, an additional 29 medieval silver coins, and an undisclosed number of gun money emergency issue coins of James II (1689 to 1690).

Additional coins involved date from the reign of King John to that of Elizabeth I and from Georgian and Victorian times.

The Irish Times reported that the National Museum reported, “The collection was amassed by an individual, now deceased, who operated in the Co[unty] Tipperary area with assistance from another person who did not reside in the area.”

Tompa commented on the Irish situation, saying: “Ireland is different than Bulgaria. They have strict laws on metal detecting that ban it, and it is enforced consistently. It’s harder to argue with Irish than Bulgarian law which allows metal detectors but supposes people won’t use them.”

The problem be it with coins originating from finds in Bulgaria, Ireland, or elsewhere is that every time something illegal is reported in the press it is the private collector who is made to look like the bad guy, guilt by association to a few bad apples.

There is no arguing that anyone intentionally smuggling coins should be prosecuted. It is the irrational exuberance of the press coupled with the enthusiasm of some foreign governments determined to keep everything ever found in the ground within their borders that make it difficult to convince the U.S. State Department to defend U.S. museums and collectors against the potential seizure of coins legitimately acquired, but coveted by some foreign government.

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