Politics & Government

Missouri man battles Washington over 2,000-year-old coins

Wayne Sayles, whose personal collecting interest is in the Roman Provincial coins of the city of Anazarbus in Cilicia, and his wife Doris, who likes to collect coins from the Phoenician city of Dora.
Wayne Sayles, whose personal collecting interest is in the Roman Provincial coins of the city of Anazarbus in Cilicia, and his wife Doris, who likes to collect coins from the Phoenician city of Dora. MCT

WASHINGTON — Wayne Sayles, a conservative Republican from Missouri who twice voted for President Bush, is none too pleased with the Bush administration these days. In fact, he says it's trying to put him out of business.

Sayles has been collecting and selling ancient coins since 1967, and on Nov. 15, a group he heads sued the State Department, charging that its decision to restrict imports of ancient coins from the Mediterranean island of Cyprus is "a major offensive" against coin collectors that threatens his hobby.

"In a world where globalism is not just a trend but an irreversible fact of life, how can anyone justify turning America into an island of prohibition for something as innocuous as a common coin?" Sayles, the executive director of the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild in Gainesville, Mo., asked on his blog.

As Washington fights go, this one's a blip on the screen. But for the 64-year-old Sayles, it's a David vs. Goliath battle, "the Pearl Harbor of the Cultural Property War," as he calls it.

Coin collectors have been livid since July, when the State Department announced that it was imposing import restrictions on Cypriot coins that date from the end of the sixth century B.C. to 235. At a ceremony in Washington, Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns said that the move "will help Cyprus to battle those who would plunder its heritage and seek to sell that heritage illegally."

Andreas Kakouris, the ambassador of the Republic of Cyprus to the U.S., said that the island's cultural heritage is one of the oldest and richest in the world, dating back 10,000 years. He had a message for coin collectors: "It may be your hobby, but it's our heritage."

Sayles is also running into opposition from the Archaeological Institute of America, the oldest and largest archaeological group in the nation, with more than 8,500 members.

"The looting of coins from archaeological sites is a significant problem throughout the world, and especially on the island of Cyprus," C. Brian Rose, the group's president, wrote in a letter to the State Department. He said that coins from the island provide historical information not available from any other sources, noting that Cypriot coins continued to be minted even after Cyprus was incorporated into the Roman Empire.

The coin collectors' lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, has three plaintiffs: The Ancient Coin Collectors Guild; the International Association of Professional Numismatists of Brussels, Belgium; and the Professional Numismatists Guild of Fallbrook, Calif. Citing the federal Freedom of Information Act, it urges the court to force the government to provide "meaningful information to the public about the unprecedented imposition of import restrictions on ancient coins of Cypriot types."

The suit accuses the government of operating with "a veil of secrecy over basic information." Among other things, the plaintiffs want the government to release all records related to the decision and to award the plaintiffs "reasonable attorney fees and litigation costs."

The State Department had no comment. "We generally don't talk about open litigation," said spokesman Rob McInturff.

To press his case, Sayles has lined up backing from Republican Sen. Kit Bond of Missouri, a longtime ally of the nation's coin collectors. (In an interview, Sayles said that Bond is one Republican whom he'd vote for again.)

Bond's spokeswoman, Shana Marchio, said that Missouri "is home to both sides of the coin in this dispute: museums and collectors." But she said Bond believes that "transparency and fairness in the process can only benefit everyone involved."

In a statement, Bond said that he's had "long-standing concerns over the lack of transparency and openness" in the State Department's cultural property decision-making process. "Federal agencies and advisory committees need to follow federal sunshine laws, and it would be disappointing if a lawsuit is required to make them do so," he said.

Sayles, who earned a master's degree with a specialization in ancient coins as works of art from at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has a long interest in ancient coins, as does his wife, Doris. He said that his personal interest is in Roman provincial coins of the city of Anazarbus in Cilicia, part of what's now southern Turkey, while his wife likes to collect coins from the Phoenician city of Dora.

He's launched The Celator, a monthly periodical for coin collectors, written a series of books and more than 200 articles on ancient coinage, and sold coins to customers in more than 40 countries. In 2004, he founded the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild, an advocacy group representing private collectors and independent scholars.

Coin collector Sayles said he wishes that the Republican Party he's backed for so long would respect his rights. Personal property rights, he argues, "are a mainstay of the American experience."

"It is a constant source of frustration to many conservatives that the Republican administration has failed to protect the conservative point of view," Sayles said.

Wayne Sayles' blog: www.ancientcoincollecting.blogspot.com