President Obama recently announced that he is going to get tough on unfair trade restrictions. In his White House announcement earlier this month, the President said China should not be allowed to "skirt the rules" by placing restrictions on exports. "If China would simply let the market work on its own, we'd have no objection," said Obama. The President went on to say, "When it is necessary, I will take action if our workers and our businesses are being subjected to unfair practices."
But China is increasingly gaining free rein over certain industries because of the U.S.' aggressive regulatory stances. While government agencies in Washington increase surcharges and restrictions for U.S. consumers, their Chinese counterparts take advantage of the unilateral sanctions. President Obama should take action by telling his own U.S. State Department to stop its unilateral trade restrictions on American coin collectors. An entire industry of small business collectors is under assault and in danger of collapsing because these sanctions unfairly target Americans alone.
U.S. coin collectors have had enough.
History has shown that unilateral regulations almost always have unintended consequences, creating new problems without addressing the underlying issues. Surprisingly, the restrictions that target this industry are the work of a lone, unelected State Department bureaucrat.
In the State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, the individual who unapologetically ignores bipartisan Congressional opposition and scoffs at the concept of transparency is Maria Kouroupas. She has ignored numerous appeals from elected officials and pushed ahead with import restrictions that she claims are deterrents to looting of the world's historic artifacts, but the reality is that the restrictions drive these items into dangerous and volatile underground markets in places like China and the Gulf States.
Looting has been a serious problem in the cradles of civilization for years, but reached a new level of crisis during the Iraq War, when items from thousands of years ago started disappearing at an alarming rate. Former Congressmen Phil English and James Leach rightfully introduced legislation to stop the importation of Iraqi goods without proper documentation. The need for emergency action even reached the White House, and the trade restrictions were put in place by executive order. But as the years have passed and the crisis faded, it has been subverted by Kouroupas to expand trade sanctions penalizing coin collectors.
Kouroupas' hardline view on cultural property is simple: all historic items should be owned by the governments of the modern nations that sit on the land that spawned ancient cultures. She penalizes U.S. citizens by imposing overly aggressive trade sanctions on even the most common cultural goods. Her restrictions are draconian, casting such a wide net that even kids and seniors are caught up in the bureaucracy. It's now illegal to import coins -- that were actual legal tender designed to trade hands in high volume -- worth as little as one dollar unless it can somehow be proved that they are not "illicit." And she shows no sign of stopping with coins.
Kouroupas' restrictions only apply to Americans -- making the U.S. the only country in the world with such import sanctions. Meanwhile, citizens from China and Europe are free to buy and sell anything they want. American collectors are forced to the sidelines, diminishing their longstanding tradition of preserving, studying and displaying historic coins. The best way for the U.S. to honor and protect cultural goods is to enable American enthusiasts to lead by example, through serving as guardians of history -- whether collected in museums or by individuals. Demanding that all artifacts are state-owned is a ridiculous over-reach. And one that Obama claims to be against.
The sanctions on coin collectors inadvertently support corrupt, foreign officials who use restrictions on Americans to divert attention from their own failures to police archaeological sites and adequately fund preservation efforts. In China, international auction houses like Sotheby's and Christie's are deliberately restrained from engaging in the art and antiquities market by a constantly-shifting set of regulations that favor Chinese interests. A group of retired officers from the People's Liberation Army filled the void, building a multi-billion dollar antiquity sales empire in less than a decade. In fact, China recently surpassed the U.S. as the largest arts and antiquities market in the world with a 30 percent share of the global market. Meanwhile, Chinese auction houses are opening offices in New York to capitalize on the restrictions that keep Americans out of other markets.
There is little doubt that nations should retain the right to protect their own cultural heritage, but there is no value in holding Americans back from an already unfair playing field. Art, antiquity and coin collectors in the U.S. adhere to the principle of responsible stewardship for items of historic value. Many of the greatest treasures in American museums are on loan from collectors who practice stewardship to share cultural history with the public. Rather than enlist and encourage collectors to do their part as stewards of the past, Kouroupas denounces them as criminals.
Kouroupas, who has held her position for nearly 30 years, is openly disdainful of Congressional oversight from politicians on both sides of the aisle. She has avoided scrutiny for so long by conducting her work behind closed doors, holding few open meetings and releasing virtually no public documents. Her latest move is to expand the trade sanctions to countries like Bulgaria.
It is time for President Obama and Hillary Clinton to stop Kouroupas. Coin collectors from all over the U.S. have fought to open meaningful dialogue on these issues for years, but it is clear that the State Department is closed to the opinions and interests of the public, businesses and Congress. Hasn't the nation's high unemployment rate and down-turned economy taught politicians that penalizing American small business owners only makes the economy worse? The White House claims to be against penalizing U.S. workers and small businesses, but the State Department is killing another U.S. industry for no good reason.