Congress Considers Import Restrictions on Iraqi Artifacts

by Peter K. Tompa

The Iraq Cultural Heritage Protection Act (H.R. 2009) is legislation recently introduced in the United States House of Representatives making it illegal to import into the US virtually any artifact excavated from the earth in Iraq that is over 100 years old. While the statute purportedly is designed to address the problem of looting of Iraqi museums and archeological sites, its broad definitions of restricted materials combined with its stringent documentation requirements could very well adversely impact ancient and foreign numismatics.

Although Iraq boasted magnificent early civilizations, coins came to Iraq at a relatively late date. The first western coins were struck in what is now present-day Turkey around the 7th C. BC This innovation was ultimately carried with Greek civilization to the far reaches of Britain and India. Beginning in the late 4th C. BC, Persian Satraps in Babylon began to issue their own coins. The first issues were struck in Iraq for Alexander the Great, the Seleucids, the Parthians, and the Sasanians. Early Islamic Dynasties and the Ottomans also struck coins in the area. All of these coins originally circulated widely as hard currency and more recently as collectibles. Even early Islamic coins have been found as far north as Sweden. For many issues, it is difficult or impossible to tell precisely where the coin was struck. Many types of coins that were struck in Iraq were also struck in other nearby areas of the Middle East.

Under current US law, import restrictions are imposed based on recommendations of the State Department’s Cultural Property Advisory Committee (“CPAC”). This body, which includes experts in archeology, museum administration, and the art trade, was created specifically to provide advice to the President in such matters. Ancient coins have been exempted from prior broad cultural property import restrictions on Italian and Cypriot artifacts after CPAC carefully weighed identical issues. The Bill would circumvent CPAC review of import restrictions on Iraqi artifacts or in other “emergency situations.”

The Bill’s stringent documentation requirements raise the most concern. They could very well make it impossible to import into the US any coin that might have circulated in Iraq earlier than c. AD 1903, if it might have been excavated from the earth in Iraq, unless documentation is provided that it was outside of Iraq before 1990 or the item is accompanied by an export license. Such a burden is simply impossible for museums, collectors, or dealers holding coins to meet because there are hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of potentially effected historical coins on the marketplace, few of which actually have any provenance at all, let alone one dating before 1990. For additional information and contrary views about the Bill, please see the Statement of the International Association of Professional Numismatists and the Professional Numismatists Guild on H.R. 2009 and the web site of the Archeological Institute of America.