Statement of Arthur L. Friedberg on the Proposed Renewal of the Memorandum of Understanding Between the Hellenic Republic and the USA

Statement of Arthur L. Friedberg, Honorary President of the International Association of Professional Numismatists on the Proposed Renewal of the Memorandum of Understanding Between the Hellenic Republic and the United States of America

March 31, 2016


Dear Professor Reid and Members of the Committee:


               During my past tenure as President of the International Association of Professional Numismatists I closely followed the issues the committee addressed, and do so again now as it discusses the request of the Hellenic Republic. I last appeared before this committee to speak against the imposition of import restrictions on coins of Italian origin and remain of the opinion that similar restrictions already imposed against coins of Greek origin are unworkable, overreaching, impossible to enforce, and discriminatory against American citizens.

            Although I will not be speaking before you on May 24, my comments concerning the issue at hand are consistent with what I have said previously:          

            1) Import restrictions are unnecessary given that Customs already has the authority to detain, and should detain, suspect coins whether they are smuggled, improperly declared, or in the case of coins taken from the ground, stolen. In this regard, the Committee must distinguish between import restrictions and Customs authority to detain smuggled, improperly declared or stolen coins. Customs already has ample authority to seize smuggled or improperly declared artifacts, including coins. Customs can also seize artifacts stolen from museums or other collections. Finally, courts have already blessed efforts to repatriate artifacts traced to illicit excavations in another country where that country has unequivocally declared such material to be state property. In the appropriate case, U.S. Customs can, therefore, already seize coins taken from archaeological excavations and repatriate them to Greek authorities.

            2) There are significant practical problems presented. First, by restrictions in terms of the inability of the untrained and inexperienced to differentiate a coin of supposed Greek origin from a similar looking one struck outside of Greece and second, by difficulties in defining “country of origin.” Just as with Roman and Greek coins from Italy, the State Department will impose serious compliance issues on Customs, collectors, and the small businesses of the numismatic trade that import thousands upon thousands of ancient coins from the EU each year.

            Furthermore, ancient coins typically circulated far from their country of manufacture. For example, Chinese cash coins were exported in quantity from the fifth to tenth centuries to East Africa, the Persian Gulf, India, Ceylon, Burma, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaya, the Philippines, Sumatra, Java and Borneo. And, because Cyprus is located on an important trade route, coins minted in Cyprus circulated widely around the Mediterranean region and even as far away as Afghanistan. Accordingly, it is impossible to determine a coin’s find spot merely from identifying it as being made at a particular mint. It would also be false to assume the find spot of an ancient coin struck in ancient Greece would be modern Greece.  While the State Department appears to have recognized this fact at least with respect to large denomination Greek coins, the fact is most smaller denomination Greek coins (particularly those of silver and bronze created by Empires such as that of Alexander the Great) circulated too. 

            Problems of identification are numerous. Even experts may have difficulty distinguishing between ancient coin issues. Greek was lingua franca for centuries of Mediterranean civilization and was the language of inscription nearly everywhere until the advent of Rome. One needs to be a specialist to tell Chinese and Cypriot coins on the State Department’s “designated list” from others that remain unrestricted and these represent a far smaller number of coins than those recently added to the “designated lists” prepared in conjunction with the Greek, Italian and Bulgarian MOUs.

            3) Compliance costs are prohibitive, and in fact, punitive. Importers and exporters of ancient coins are either small businesses of the numismatic trade or individual collectors. Given the numbers available, the absence of pedigrees, and modest value for most coins, it will be difficult, if not impossible, for coin collectors and dealers to submit the mandated information if restrictions are put in place. Coins are typically sold without provenance information either here or abroad. Even assuming such information were retained, why would any rational European dealer sell to an American when he could avoid such red tape altogether by selling to a fellow European? And what of Customs? Have new restrictions on coins been accompanied with additional funding to allow Customs to hire the necessary experts or train its personnel? One suspects not.

            4) Litigation costs are prohibitive for most coins. Costs are such that with few exceptions, once a coin is seized the most practical decision an owner can usually make is to abandon it.

            So what will happen if the overreaching and quite frankly, illogical import restrictions requested by a small segment of the academic archaeological community are imposed? Restrictions will be unenforceable and the broader they are, the more unenforceable they will be. Collectors will still collect and dealers will still deal. Coins will still cross borders.

            What will be different is that first, much more business will be driven underground. While the Hellenic Republic has always tended ignore with a wink and a nod its endemic institutional corruption and the black aspects of its economy (estimates of the underground economy in Greece range from 30% to 50% of GDP), restrictions  only encourage some American collectors to also evade the law, as so many in Greece have done and are continuing to do with impunity. Second, some may urge US law enforcement to implement some very harsh and unpopular enforcement tactics. Yet, while a few individuals will be caught and punished, coins will still enter the United States with little difficulty.

            Much as they do now, important and expensive coins will have proper commercial invoices and new legal requirements will force legitimate dealers to try to secure the required documentation of provenance—if it is indeed available. But, as I said previously, the vast majority of coins, the unimportant and inexpensive ones, those which make up most of the volume, will move invisibly and unencumbered – in the pockets of travelers, and especially though the world's postal services, which lack the ability, the resources and the will to do anything about it.

            In addition, there are several compelling factors specific to the Greek MOU.


  • The governing statute requires that restrictions only be applied on artifacts "first discovered in Greece." But hoard evidence demonstrates that Greek coins circulated extensively outside the confines of the modern Greek nation state.

  • The governing statute requires that restrictions be consistent with the interests of the international community in cultural exchanges. But restrictions will diminish the ability of American collectors to appreciate Greek culture and could greatly limit people to people contacts with other collectors in Europe.

  • Restrictions are unfair and discriminatory to Americans. Collectors in the EU--including Greece-- have no similar limitations on their ability to import ancient coins. In fact, the very coins for which restrictions are being discussed in this forum are actively and legally bought, sold and shipped in every member country of the E.U. and Switzerland, as well as the major coin collecting countries of Australia, Canada, and Japan, and Hong Kong.

  • The current restrictions are already excessively broad, broader even in at least some respects than the restrictions on Italian coins. There were hundreds of so-called Greek mints. But many of them that we would call “Greek” today, and which will be found in any ancient Greek coin catalog are actually from elsewhere – eastern Europe, Turkey, the Middle East and North Africa.

  • There has been a trend starting with the Bulgarian MOU to impose restrictions on coins even as late as the eighteenth century.  If such a move is contemplated here, the result from a numismatic perspective is that in addition to the entire Hellenic and Hellenistic coinage of the Mediterranean basin described above, this would also encompass most of the coinage of the Ottoman Empire. Ottoman Mints and Coins by Slobodan Sreckovic (Belgrade, 2002), documents over 100 Ottoman mints during the empire's six century existence. Yet among all of these we find less than a half dozen located on Greek soil. Only an expert in Islamic coinage can differentiate most of these and to expect a Customs official to do the same is absurd.

                In sum, CPAC must contemplate the practical impact of any import restrictions on collectors, the small businesses of the numismatic trade and U.S. Customs before considering whether to extend or even expand import restrictions on coins.  American citizens have long enjoyed collecting ancient Greek coins just like their counterparts elsewhere in the world do. Unfair, unworkable and unnecessary import restrictions on ancient coins  do nothing but strangle legitimate collecting in the United States and with it the study and appreciation of ancient coinage and culture in this country, and the contribution to international understanding that goes with it.

Statement of Arthur L. Friedberg, Honorary President of the International Association of Professional Numismatists on the Proposed Renewal of the Memorandum of Understanding Between the Hellenic Republic and

the United States of America

Thursday, April 7, 2016

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