Can Coin Collectors Make Change?

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Three organizations that represent coin collectors and dealers have joined to sue the U.S. State Department in federal court in Washington. Collectors were very put out this summer when State approved a request by Cyprus to ban the import of ancient coins from that island. Italy has made a similar request. Now the collectors want to compel the department to provide documents that would shed light on its decision making.

This is a suit that American museum professionals who have anything to do with ancient art, not just coins, will be watching closely. They’ve been unhappy for a long time with the willingness — sometimes it looks to them like the eagerness — of the U.S. government to side with nations that claim almost all antiquities found on their soil as part of their “cultural heritage” and that ask the State Department to ban all import of that material. For three years China has sought an import ban — without success so far — on practically every kind of Chinese art and artifact from prehistoric times to the early 20th century. That sweeping request in particular has Asian art curators and collectors worried.

Artworld professionals suspect that the U.S. is too quick to sacrifice the interests of American museums to help secure the cooperation of foreign nations in matters like drug trafficking and the war on terror. If that’s true, the coin collector suit won’t transform policy overnight. But it could force the government to open up a bit on how policy is made, and for American museums that alone would be a useful step.