The United States Introduces Import Restrictions for Cypriot Coins

The Cultural Property Advisory Committee has recommended, and the State Department has issued an import ban on Cypriot coins. Here is an excerpt from the Federal register notice outlining the new import restrictions:

Coins of Cypriot Types
Coins of Cypriot types made of gold, silver, and bronze including but not limited to:

1. Issues of the ancient kingdoms of Amathus, Kition, Kourion, Idalion, Lapethos, Marion, Paphos, Soli, and Salamis dating from the end of the 6th century B.C. to 332 B.C.

2. Issues of the Hellenistic period, such as those of Paphos, Salamis, and Kition from 332 B.C. to c. 30 B.C.

3. Provincial and local issues of the Roman period from c. 30 B.C. to 235 A.D. Often these have a bust or head on one side and the image of a temple (the Temple of Aphrodite at Palaipaphos) or statue (statue of Zeus Salaminios) on the other.

Jeremy Kahn of the New York Times has a summary in today’s paper here. The new restriction is noteworthy because the Cultural Property Advisory Committee has never placed restrictions on ancient coins before. However, no request for restrictions by another nation has never been refused, so this was the likely outcome. To trigger a recommendation for import restrictions, a source nation must show it is working to police its archaeological sites, and the ancient sites are in danger of being pillaged. It seems Cyprus was able to make that claim, though we won’t be able to know the actual deliberations which went on because the deliberations of the CPAC are secret.

Cyprus’ ambassador Andreas Kakouris said in the NYT article “We are very pleased coins have been added to this … Coins constitute an inseparable part of our own cultural heritage, and the pillage they are subjected to is the same as other archaeological material.”

Representing the other side though is Peter Tompa who said “This decision shows that the Department of State is putting the narrow interest of the cultural bureaucracies of foreign states and the archaeological community over those ordinary Americans who believe that collecting increases appreciation of the past and helps preserve artifacts.”

It’s a difficult issue I think. The work of numismatists has helped archaeologists to be able to date their finds. However, ancient coins are found in the same areas as other archaeological materials. I argue in my thesis that the bilateral implementation of the 1970 UNESCO Convention which the US and Switzerland have undertaken can be quite effective, and at least gives a voice to the interests of antiquities dealers. They may not think their views are taken into account in the CPAC, but it is a much stronger voice than they have in other nations. The restrictions are limited as well, they extend for five years only, and have to be renewed.

In my view the solution is a compromise which strongly restricts the trade in the most important objects, but allows a limited and licit trade in surplus and other objects. To fund these efforts I propose antiquities leasing and other initiatives. The magic bullet which could end all of these problems though is the publication of detailed provenances for all sales. Unfortunately the current climate does not promote the sharing of that information.

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412 Antiquities Repatriated

On Wednesday, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement Officials returned 412 pre-Columbian antiquities to Peru. US Officials said it was the largest repatriation since the 1970s. The objects were returned during a repatriation ceremony at Florida International University in Miami. This is the Consul General of Peru, Jorge E. Ramon Morey. The best reporting is from the Miami Herald, with a slideshow and video, here. The Washington Post has a store here, Reuters has a blurb here and the AP summary can be found here.

They were being hawked by Ugo Bagnato, an Italian citizen, from a 1985 GMC cutaway van. Each antiquity was being sold for as much as $2,000 a piece. He smuggled the objects into the country in 2004 using “fake documents.” If I had to guess, I’d say he faked the customs documents. I had heard nothing about this case previously, but it seems Bagnato plead guilty and served 17 months in federal prison. He is now awaiting deportation.

The objects included:

  • dolls
  • tapestries
  • gold jewelry
  • burial shrouds
  • clay vessels
  • ancient fabrics
  • a child’s tunic

The arrest is a welcome sign I think, but of course the archaeological context surrounding the objects has been destroyed. As Morey said, coastal areas in Peru are looted to such an extent that “from an airplane, it looks like the area has been bombed.” The objects were returned pursuant to the 1997 bilateral agreement between the two nations. This was the way the US chose to implement the 1970 UNESCO Convention.

This arrest of Bagnato and the repatriation, though welcome, indicate that the current regulation of the international antiquities trade is simply not working. One would expect that a guy selling a 3,000 year-old pot from a van should be apprehended. The objects weren’t noticed by Customs officials, because most shipments cannot be satisfactorily examined. Also, the middle-men and actual looters are unlikely to be punished.

Will the high-profile announcement this week serve to discourage the illicit trade? I have my doubts. If such this guy can openly sell objects from his van, I wonder how many illicit objects are sold in the more prestigious auction houses and galleries? We cannot be sure of course, because they do not routinely give provenance for their wares, and until they do, Peru and other source nations will likely continue to lose their archaeological heritage.

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