Should You Insist Upon A Provenance When Buying Ancient Coins?

Posted on: 5 November 2014

The provenance of ancient coins for sale shows where the coin was found and who has owned it since it was found. When you start searching for ancient coins to buy, you will discover that although some have a provenance attached to them, many others do not. There are pros and cons to having a provenance attached to the coins you buy, and to decide if you should insist on a provenance when buying ancient coins, you may want to consider the following issues:

Legally Obtained Coins versus Looted Coins

Knowing where a coin has come from helps a collector to ensure that the coin was obtained legally. Essentially, a provenance assures the collector that the coin was not looted and stolen from an archaeological site.

When an ancient coin has a provenance attached to it, it also assures the collector that the coin is from a country that is allowed to import coins to the United States. For example, you cannot legally import ancient coins from Cyprus or Iraq, but you can certainly own these coins if they came into the country before that law was put into place.

The United Nations Views on Cultural Property

Having a provenance attached to a coin also ensures that the coin's history is compliant with the terms of the 1970 United Nations Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. The articles adopted during that convention address antiquities that are more than one hundred years old including coins, and the terms of the adopted articles are designed to protect countries from losing their cultural heritage to looters.

In most cases, to be compliant with the terms created during this convention, all coins that are more than 100 years old should have a provenance attached to them that dates back to at least 1970. If a government is worried that citizens of another country are inappropriately collecting their cultural artifacts, that government can contact the state department of the country in question and set up a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU).

If an MOU is set up, it creates import restrictions, and it may even allow the confiscation of cultural property from collectors. If you have a provenance attached to a coin when you buy it, it protects you from possible confiscation created by an MOU.

Potential Repercussions of Buying Looted Coins

Trading looted coins is illegal, and it can carry serious penalties. For example, when Dr. Arnold-Peter Weiss plead guilty to trying to sell illegally obtained ancient Greek coins, he was given 70 hours of community service and required to write an article on the importance of provenance.

Weiss was trying to sell an ancient Roman coin, and under Italian law, antiquities found in Italy after 1909 cannot be sold. However, it is important to note that Weiss did not accidentally buy a coin that was illegal to own. He actually knew that he had acquired coins that had been dug up after the 1909 deadline, and he was trying to turn a profit with them anyway.

Drawbacks to Provenance

Although there are several advantages of having a provenance attached to ancient coins, there are also drawbacks as well. According to numismatic experts, most of the coins that are traded and sold in the United States have been in the coin collecting world for years, and because of this fact, having a provenance attached to each coin is not important.

Additionally, attaching provenance to a coin is expensive, and in most cases, unless the provenance adds value to the coin, there is little to no incentive to attach it. Because of this fact, you will find that most of the ancient coins you encounter do not have a provenance with them.

If you are worried about where a particular coin has come from, speak with the seller about your concerns. Even if the coin does not have a provenance, the seller may be able to assure you that it was obtained in a perfectly legal and ethical manner.



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