Five years is less than a blink of an eye for two dozen ancient coins from China and Cyprus currently in the custody of federal customs officials in Baltimore. But federal prosecutors believe a half-decade is more than enough time for a legal battle over the coins waged by a collectors’ group that initially tried to import them.
In a harshly worded motion filed last week, prosecutors asked a judge to “stop this waste of judicial resources” and deny the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild’s efforts to stop a forfeiture action, which included an unsuccessful appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“We are still here — in the fifth year — for only one reason: Claimants’ refusal to take ‘no’ for an answer,” prosecutors wrote.
A lawyer for the guild was unmoved Friday, maintaining the government is over-reaching with a law designed to prevent looted and smuggled artifacts from ending up in the country.
“It’s a blunderbuss approach that covers everything,” said Peter K. Tompa, a member of the guild’s board of directors.
At issue in the case are 23 coins — including three described in court records as “knife-shaped” — worth a total of $275, according to Tompa. The guild knowingly used the coins as a test case to challenge federal law, he said.
Customs officials intercepted the coins in April 2009 when they arrived at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport on a flight from London. An invoice with the coins indicated they dated from between 400 B.C. and 220 A.D., according to court filings, but the invoice did not state where or when they were found.
The government seized the coins under the Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act, which allows the government to restrict imports of specific artifacts at the request of foreign governments. Cyprus and China requested bans on coins in 2007 and 2009, respectively; the law allows for exemptions if the Cypriot or Chinese governments issued a permit or the guild could prove the objects left Cyprus or China before the effective dates of the U.S. government’s agreements with the two countries.
The guild filed a federal lawsuit against Customs and Border Protection and the State Department in February 2010, calling the ban on Chinese and Cypriot coins “capricious and arbitrary” in part because they are widely traded and collected across the world without the documentation required by the U.S. government.
“It’s impacting the ability of people to collect ancient coins,” said Tompa, of counsel to Bailey & Ehrenberg PLLC in Washington, D.C.
A federal judge threw out the guild’s case in 2011, a decision upheld on appeal the following year by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which found the government met its burden in initiating the forfeiture proceedings.
The U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the 4th Circuit’s decision in March 2013. Federal prosecutors filed their complaint for forfeiture one month later. The guild again challenged the federal law in its response, but Judge Catherine C. Blake last month ruled that the 4th Circuit’s opinion “forecloses any further challenge to the validity of the regulations.”
The guild subsequently filed a motion for reconsideration, leading to prosecutors’ exasperated response last week.
“At each turn, Claimants have been rebuffed in their effort to turn a simple civil forfeiture case against a handful of ancient coins into a test of the ability of the United States of America to honor its treaty obligations and to protect the cultural patrimony of countries from which objects of antiquity have been looted and sold to collectors,” they wrote. “To Claimants’ fourth attempt to raise the same issues the court should say, enough is enough.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Stefan Casella, who supervises the Asset Forfeiture and Money Laundering Section and is handling the case, declined to comment on the ongoing litigation.
The case is United States of America v. 3 Knife-Shaped Coins et al., 1:13-cv-01183-CCB.