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For some coin collectors, federal regulations don't add up

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By Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 8, 2010

They're only worth about $275, but 23 bronze coins seized by the federal government at Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport last year just might be the most important chunk of change for numismatists in years.

These well-worn coins, struck more than a thousand years ago in Cyprus and China, are at the center of a dispute over U.S. rules that collectors across the country say could threaten their popular and beloved hobby.

For generations, collectors have freely bought and sold coins from around the world, including many from ancient times. But the United States in recent years began restricting imports of some coins as part of a broader effort to protect antiquities and combat the looting of archaeological sites abroad.

It began with some Cypriot coins in 2007, then certain Chinese coins were added last year. But numismatists are worried that Roman coins, the passion of many collectors, could be next to join the list.

So the Missouri-based Ancient Coin Collectors Guild bought the 23 bronze coins in April last year from a London dealer, solely to challenge the rules and set off a legal showdown over requirements that people show proof of where or when certain coins are unearthed.

In a lawsuit filed February in Maryland federal court, the collectors say presidents John Quincy Adams, Thomas Jefferson and Ronald Reagan were ancient coin collectors. Most coins, they contend, were so widely circulated in ancient times that it might be impossible to know when they were dug up. Plus, they argue, the rules will do little to discourage plundering because they apply only to U.S. collectors.

Wayne G. Sayles, a longtime collector and guild executive director, said he agrees that some antiquities -- such as religious icons, mummies and precious artwork -- need the government's protection and belong to the people of the country in which they were found. But he thinks coins are different. Most aren't high-dollar items, he says, and collectors keep, study and protect coins that museums don't want.

"Do I think that the Liberty Bell ought to be sold to somebody in Russia? No, it belongs here. I understand that, and I agree with that. But we're not talking about the Liberty Bell," Sayles said.

On the flip side, there's Richard M. Leventhal, an anthropology professor at the University of Pennsylvania. He's among those who see a coin or pottery bowl or marble statue as pieces of one big historical puzzle. Leventhal, who said he once was shot at by looters at an ancient Mayan site in Belize (they missed), supports the restrictions that he thinks will hinder metal-detector-toting thieves who destroy historic sites before archaeologists can study them.

"Coins are part of the record of our past. To learn about the past and think about our identities and cultural heritage, coins have to be included," Leventhal said. "Ripping stuff out of the ground destroys our knowledge of who we are and where we came from."

Under federal rules, anyone bringing certain ancient coins that are Cypriot or Chinese into the United States must either have an export permit from that country or documents that show they were unearthed elsewhere or purchased before the regulations went into effect.

On Wednesday, Leventhal and Sayles attended a hearing before the State Department's Cultural Property Advisory Committee on an agreement with Italy that restricts the import of some pre-classical, classical and Imperial Roman artifacts. Many collectors are lobbying against the addition of coins, while many archaeologists want them on the list.


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