Coin Collectors Sue State Department Over Import Rules
Date: 19 Nov 2007 | | Views: 3568
Source: The New York Times (www.nytimes.com), by Jeremy Kahn
Three organizations representing coin collectors and dealers have filed a lawsuit against the State Department demanding greater disclosure of how the government makes decisions on the import of ancient artifacts from abroad.
The suit, filed jointly on Thursday by the three groups in Federal District Court in Washington, asserts that the State Department violated the Freedom of Information Act when it failed to release documents that the coin collectors had sought concerning recent decisions in which the State Department either considered or imposed import restrictions on ancient coins. The documents involve trade between the United States and Italy, China and the Republic of Cyprus.
If the coin collectors were to prevail, the State Department might be compelled to shed more light on the way it makes decisions on protecting the cultural property of other nations, a process that many art dealers, museum directors and collectors argue has been unnecessarily shrouded in secrecy. Among the information sought from the State Department are documents related to a May 2004 request from China that the United States restrict the import of a vast array of art and artifacts, including coins, dating from Chinese prehistory through the early 20th century. The State Department has repeatedly delayed action on the Chinese petition in the face of strong opposition from museum curators, art dealers, auction houses and collectors.
The Chinese request is supported by archaeologists, however, who believe that the antiquities market and trade in ancient coins encourages the pillage of important ancient sites.
The lawsuit also follows a controversial decision by the State Department in July to ban imports of ancient coins from the island of Cyprus. It was the first time the government had barred trade in a broad category of ancient coins, and collectors and dealers were startled. Archaeologists, who often use coins to help them date finds, supported that ban on the grounds that treasure hunters using metal detectors to search for coins frequently damage significant sites.
The coin collectors described their lawsuit as a last resort, taken only after the State Department ignored multiple Freedom of Information Act requests made over the last three years as well as unsuccessful efforts by two Republican legislators, Representative John Culberson of Texas and Senator Christopher S. Bond of Missouri, to persuade the State Department to divulge more about its decision-making.
“We have tried every other step,” said Wayne G. Sayles, executive director of the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild, one of the groups bringing the suit. “We are not getting any transparency in the process, and we need that transparency to make sure our position is considered and that our rights are maintained.” The other two plaintiffs are the International Association of Professional Numismatists and the Professional Numismatists Guild.
Darlene Kirk, a spokeswoman for the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, said the department would not comment on a pending lawsuit as a matter of policy.
Peter K. Tompa, an attorney who serves as president of the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild and has represented collectors before a committee that advises the State Department on the antiquities trade, suggested that if the lawsuit succeeds, it might yield evidence that would allow the coin collectors to challenge the legal basis for the ban on Cypriot coin imports.
Mr. Tompa said that the coin collectors suspect that the State Department imposed the restriction on coins against the advice of its own Cultural Property Advisory Committee and perhaps in violation of the procedures established by a 1983 law governing cultural property protection. They want the State Department to release documents that could prove or disprove this suspicion.