Ancient Coins and Paul Ryan

While writing a story recently about the artistic tastes of the presidential candidates for the Washington Post, I started looking into the collecting habits of their running mates as well.

Vice President Joe Biden, burnishing a blue collar image, seems to only talk up his collection of old cars, such as a 1967 Corvette that the Secret Service won’t let him drive.

“It’s the one thing I hate about this job,” he told Car & Driver magazine about the restriction. “I’m serious.”

And though Paul Ryan is also the name of several different artists — including an Irish landscape painter, another who drew “The Phantom” comic strip for years and a third who was a video artist associated with Marshall McLuhan – the Congressman has not delineated his personal art tastes.

(Although if he likes the music of Led Zeppelin and AC/DC as he claims, perhaps he enjoys the Gothic art that occasionally adorns hard rock album covers).

If there’s one thing that Ryan does collects and celebrates quite publically, though, it’s collecting ancient coins.

In the way, it’s a perfect hobby for conservatives – combining an Ayn Rand belief in gold standard with strains of freedom and American exceptionalism.

Ryan was given a formal Friend of Numismatics award by the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild in 2006 for his work in promoting a so-called “Collectors Right Resolution,” passed by the Wisconsin Republican Party, meant to block moves by countries trying to protect cultural assets threatened by archaeologists selling to U.S. collectors.

“We reject recent efforts to restrict the collecting of art, books, coins, pottery, stamps weapons and other common antique collectibles over 100 years old,” the resolution said, urging that such items be exempt “from future import restriction and cultural property laws and treaties.”

To that end Ryan opposed a 2005 bill that died in committee that would have curbed import of ancient Afghan coins that became available after the U.S. invaded the country a decade ago.

Ryan was also the first signatory on a 2010 letter to the State Department, signed by 12 members of Congress of both parties, concerning restrictions on illegally imported coins from Cyprus and China that “discriminate against American collector and represent a taking of their private property.” The letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also expressed concern on any agreement with Italy that would “serve to deny Americans promised cultural opportunities.”

The State Department declined to review actions by the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, in a reply last year, causing some coin collectors to lash out as a freedom issue.

As Missouri numismatic Wayne G. Sayles wrote in his Ancient Coin Collecting blog, “Coins may well be the straw that broke the camel’s back in a growing milieu of over-regulation, restriction of personal freedoms, repression of property rights, and the loss of constitutional guarantees like the presumption of innocence. Where do our elected representatives take a stand for freedom?”

As such, the choice of Ryan as Romney’s running caused some excitement in collecting circles. The Cultural Property Observer may have been the only website to frame the news quite this way: “Romney Picks Ancient Coin Collector Supporter as VP Choice.”

Others were not as excited, such as David Gill, Professor of Archaeological Heritage and Head of the Division of Humanities at University Campus Suffolk in Ipswich, who writes a blog called Looting Matters, who nonetheless said Romney’s choice of running mate “is not without significance.”

Paul Barford, a British archaeologist living in Poland, who has also been keeping track of Ryan’s close ties to coin collectors wrote in August about his concerns on his blog, Portable Antiquity Collecting and Heritage Issues:

“Choosing as a VP a man who has consistently shown that, just to win a few more votes, he is willing to trample all over international measures to protect cultural property is sending out a massive spit-in-your-eye signal to the rest of the world about what we can expect from Conservative America in coming years.”

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