Never miss a post! Enter your email address below to subscribe today.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Cultural Property Implementation Act Covers Ancient Coins

The Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act (CPIA) classifies designated ancient coin artifacts as archaeological material. 

That ancient coins serve as evidentiary sources of the past makes perfect sense. Ancient coins that have been scientifically excavated, observed, and documented in their original context can absolutely date ancient sites of human activity, tell archaeologists about the available currencies that circulated during different time periods, and offer material evidence about the societies that used these artifacts. As a result, ancient coins are significant cultural objects..

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals agrees. In the case of Ancient Coin Collectors Guild v. U.S. Customs and Border Protection et al., the court acknowledged that "[c]oins are portable objects," but added, "that is not the whole story." In a unanimous ruling the judges wrote, "The often worn and mysterious beauty of ancient coins renders them invaluable cultural artifacts, helpful not only in dating archaeological finds but in revealing how distant civilizations once conducted their civic and commercial life.”

Tearing artifacts from the ground without concern for their evidentiary value and without regard for the archaeological sites from which they were stripped irreparably destroys critical evidence of the past. That is why there are strong legal, political, and social efforts to stop looters from engaging in this malicious activity.


The CPIA’s defines “cultural property” as “articles described in article 1(a) through (k) of the [1970 UNESCO] Convention whether or not any such article is specifically designated as such by any State Party for the purposes of such article.” 19 U.S.C. § 2601(6).

Turning to Article 1 of the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property shows that “cultural property” includes ancient coins, which are "(c) products of archaeological excavations (including regular and clandestine) or of archaeological discoveries; [and] ... (e) antiquities more than one hundred years old, such as inscriptions, coins and engraved seals[.]" (Emphasis added).


Import controls enacted under the CPIA must regulate cultural property that is "archaeological material." By the terms of 19 U.S.C. §2601(2)(C), that is material
which was first discovered within, and is subject to export control by, the State Party. For purposes of this paragraph—(i) no object may be considered to be an object of archaeological interest unless such object—(I) is of cultural significance; (II) is at least two hundred and fifty years old; and (III) was normally discovered as a result of scientific excavation, clandestine or accidental digging, or exploration on land or under water; and
Ancient coins covered under currently enacted CPIA import protections include what is described in the definition above, namely those that are dug up and at least 250 years old. They are also artifacts of cultural significance because of their archaeological value. The Federal Register (Jan. 19, 2011), for example, chronicled the CPIA bilateral agreement with Italy by reporting, “Coins constitute an inseparable part of the archaeological record of Italy, and, like other archaeological objects, they are vulnerable to pillage and illicit export.”

The Ancient Coin Collectors Guild (ACCG) unsuccessfully argued to the federal courts that the U.S. State Department and Customs and Border Protection "acted ultra vires [outside the law] by placing import restrictions on all coins of certain types without demonstrating that all coins of those types were 'first discovered within'' the countries of origin. A federal appeals court struck down this assertion saying “We are not persuaded.” The Fourth Circuit explained that "State and CBP are under no obligation to list restricted items with more specificity than the [CPIA] statute commands, and they are certainly not required to impose restrictions on a coin-by-coin basis. Such a requirement would make the statutory scheme utterly unworkable in practice.”

In the same case, the ACCG complained that collectors do not always have documents supporting the import of most ancient coins. The Fourth Circuit acknowledged that there may be cultural property imported into the U.S. that lack provenance or export permits, but pointed out that there is a process allowing importers to show that the objects are legal. The court observed:
In those cases, the [CPIA] statute expressly provides that CBP may seize the articles at the border: ‘If the [importer] of any designated archaeological or ethnological material is unable to present to the customs officer” the required documentation, the “officer concerned shall refuse to release the material from customs custody ... until such documentation or evidence is filed with such officer.’ 19 U.S.C. § 2606(b). In short, CBP need not demonstrate that the articles are restricted; rather, the statute “expressly places the burden on importers to prove that they are importable.”
The court highlighted that, under the CPIA, "[t]he importer need not document every movement of its articles since ancient times. It need demonstrate only that the articles left the country that has requested import restrictions before those restrictions went into effect or more than ten years before the date of import."

The customs law, pursuant to 19 U.S.C. § 1484, obliges the importer of record to use reasonable care when entering, classifying and determine the value of imported items. That includes the importer’s duty to list the country of origin of any ancient coins imported into the U.S. More about the importer's responsibility can be found here.

Photo credit: Patrick Moore

By Rick St. Hilaire Text copyrighted 2010-2014 by Ricardo A. St. Hilaire, Attorney & Counselor at Law, PLLC. Blog url: culturalheritagelawyer.blogspot.com. Any unauthorized reproduction or retransmission of this post is prohibited. CONTACT INFORMATION: www.culturalheritagelawyer.com