Wednesday, May 01, 2013

German Supreme Court ruling favorable to Ancient Coin Collectors

While U.S. Courts have consistently avoided hearing arguments about the validity of imposing trade restrictions on ancient coins, a German High Court has faced the issue head on and ruled definitively in a case involving coins.  For a certified translation click HERE.

On October 31, 2008 a German auctioneer, Stefan Sonntag, presented an export declaration for 32 coins and medals to the Port Customs Office of the Main Customs Office.  The objects were declared to be between 1,500 to 2,400 years old.  The Main Customs Office rejected the export declaration and demanded an Export Permit, citing EEC law involving export of cultural property.  Sonntag then filed a complaint with the Fiscal Court, which ultimately dismissed the complaint affirming the actions of the Customs agency.


Sonntag then appealed the case to the Bundesfinanzhof (Federal Finance Court) one of the Federal Supreme Courts of Germany.  It is the final court of appeals for cases of tax and customs law.  Sonntag argued that ancient coins are "...generally not archaeological objects, but are present in great numbers in trade as bulk commodities and listed in numerous catalogues with price information; they are certainly not national cultural property — and are not the interest of archeological work and research — that the Union alone can take on the responsibility to protect."  The argument went on to point out that the contested Customs interpretation "...would inconpatibly bring the coin trade with third party customers to a standstill when it comes to free movement of goods."

The Main Customs Office responded with a request for rejection of the Appeal based on their interpretation that all cultural property requires and export permit and the basis for that interpretation cannot be challenged.

The decision of the Bundesfinanzhof on March 1, 2013 was that the appeal of the Plaintiff (Sonntag) is justified and that the Customs and Fiscal Court interpretations were "based on an incorrect notion of 'archaeological object' or 'archaeological discovery'."  Of considerable interest to American collectors and dealers was the court's comments about what does constitute an archaeological object.  "The Plaintiff rightly asserts that coins coming from Antiquity generally have no archeological value and thus are not archaeological objects, especially when they are available in large numbers and they—which the Badische Landesmuseum [State Museum] also mentions in its opinion referred to by the Main Customs Office in the hearing—can no longer be assigned to a specific place of discovery."

In essence, the court ruled that each case must be evaluated by Customs on its own merits, not on a general assertion that coins are, as a class, subject to export permit controls.  This evaluation should take into account "whether the same or similar objects are largely the object of trade in which archaeological institutions and collections are not involved, but rather collectors are involved who are not interested in such coins as an 'archaeological' interest but as a desire to collect and acquire said objects for aesthetic value or for other interests."

The ACCG test case is at the opposite end of this issue, but the arguments are similar.  The ACCG argues that coins cannot be judged illicit simply because they lack provenance.  It is the responsibility of the Customs Agency to determine whether the specific objects being imported are illicit and that determination must be based on facts, not suppositions.  It is anticipated that the ACCG case, which has been referred for forfeiture action and will be contested when that action is served, will bring these issues to bear in a court that cannot deny jurisdiction.

Finally, it should be said that many critics of the ACCG, private collectors and the numismatic trade have the mistaken belief that the "hobby" (more of an avocation for most) is opposed to import controls because collectors want access to "black market" coins.  That is an unfortunate characterization that is entirely false, but it does resonate with some mindsets.  The ACCG has consistently, since its inception nine years ago, asked all members, dealers and government officials to follow the applicable laws wherever they live or visit.  The point of the ACCG test case is to create case law that will spell out exactly what was intended by Congress in the Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act.


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