Invoking the legacy of famous American coin collectors over time, from John Quincy Adams to Ronald Reagan, a Missouri-based nonprofit that promotes the interests of numismatists sued last year for the return of ancient Cypriot and Chinese coins seized by U.S. customs agents in Baltimore.
A Maryland federal judge dismissed (PDF) the suit yesterday, leaving the fate of the 1,000- to 2,000-year-old coins – now in U.S. Customs and Border Protection custody – unclear.
The Ancient Coin Collectors Guild bought the coins, valued at about $275, from a dealer in London in April 2009. Although it was clear the coins had been minted in Cyprus and China, neither the dealer nor the guild knew where they were first discovered.
Coins were traded throughout the ancient world, the guild noted in its complaint (PDF), so “it is therefore, unreasonable to assume that a coin is ‘stolen,’ ‘illegally exported,’ or ‘illegally imported’ ” merely because the holder cannot establish a chain of custody beyond receipt from a reputable source.”
“Americans have specifically enjoyed collecting ancient coins for generations,” the guild wrote in its complaint, from John Quincy Adams, “a serious, early American collector of ancient coins” to “Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan and, upon information and belief, William Jefferson Clinton.”
U.S. customs agents seized the coins after they arrived in Baltimore. In suing for their return in U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland, the guild argued that restrictions placed on such imports are unlawful and that customs officials and the U.S. Department of State overstepped their authority in creating and enforcing them.
U.S. District Judge Catherine Blake granted summary judgment to the government and dismissed the case. She cited procedural grounds, but added that in a situation where it’s unclear where the coins were discovered – as was the case here – the scales tip in favor of restriction.
“Looted objects are, presumably, extremely unlikely to carry documentation, or at least accurate documentation, of when and where they were discovered and when they were exported from the country in which they were discovered,” she wrote.
The coins will remain with U.S. customs officials for now, according to the guild’s attorney, Peter Tompa of Washington’s Bailey & Ehrenberg. Tompa said he and his clients are weighing an appeal.
“We believe we’ve raised some legitimate concerns about how State Department and Customs both promulgate and apply import restrictions on pieces or goods that are commonly traded here and around the world,” Tompa said.
A State Department spokesman said officials were reviewing the decision. A customs spokesman referred questions to the U.S. attorneys’ office, which offered no immediate comment.
The Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act, passed in 1983, gives the president the authority to enter into agreements with other countries to restrict the import of artifacts of archaeological and cultural significance.
Following requests for such agreements from Cyprus and China, the government in 2007 and 2009, respectively, restricted the import of ancient coins minted in those countries. The restrictions bar the import of coins discovered in either country and allow the import of coins found elsewhere, but the two sides disputed whether the State Department had authority to restrict coins whose “find spot” was unknown.
Blake dismissed claims brought under the Administrative Procedure Act, writing that decisions made pursuant to presidential authority weren’t subject to judicial review.
Regarding whether the State Department exceeded its authority, Blake found that the law put the burden on the importer to prove the artifacts are legitimate, “and prohibits the importation of those objects if they cannot meet that burden.”
The guild also argued that the restrictions amounted to a violation of the First Amendment because the inscriptions and motifs on the coins are “information or speech” and convey content. Blake disagreed.
“Even if ancient coins convey information about ancient societies, the government’s interest in combating the pillage of archaeological materials is unrelated to the suppression of the flow of that information,” she wrote.
Photo courtesy of the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild.