Monday, December 3, 2012

The Cultural Property Importer's Responsibility

When cultural material is brought into the United States from abroad, the country of origin must be listed accurately on customs import forms. See 19 U.S.C. 1304. There are some, nevertheless, who argue that this duty and many other import mandates are too difficult to bear.  It has even been claimed in some instances that these requirements should be shifted from cultural property importers to customs officials. But such interpretations of federal law are incorrect. Three cases this year, in fact, reinforce the notion that cultural property import requirements are borne by importers, particularly--as one appeals court judge observed--because they possess the most knowledge about the goods that they seek to import.

In the case of Ancient Coin Collectors Guild v. U.S. Customs and Border Protection et al., the fourth circuit court rejected the ACCG's claim that information requirements concerning ancient coins from China and Cyprus should be placed on the customs officials who enforce the Cultural Property Implementation Act's (CPIA) import restrictions. One judge during oral argument commented that there is only a "slight burden" placed on importers to explain where regulated coins would have been located during the last few years. A unanimous court ultimately pointed out that importers bear responsibility for complying with customs rules, writing that "CBP [U.S. Customs and Border Protection] need not demonstrate that the [Chinese and Cypriot] articles are restricted; rather, the [CPIA] statute 'expressly places the burden on importers to prove that they are importable.'"

The case of United States v. One Tyrannosaurus Bataar Skeleton also advanced the proposition that the cultural property importer has legal responsibilities that cannot be shirked.  In upholding the sufficiency of the government's complaint to forfeit imported dinosaur bones, the New York federal district court disagreed with the dinosaur importer's "conten[tion] that the failure of the government to provide regulatory guidance on determining the proper country of origin or value of fossils leaves importers 'hard-pressed to respond to a customs broker's inquiry about the country of origin of a dinosaur fossil that existed millions of years before the emergence of Homo sapiens and even longer before the concept of a 'country' was established.'"  The court wrote that "[t]he prohibition in [the anti-smuggling statute] against importation by means of 'any false statement' is not vague or ambiguous, and it does not make reference or in any way depend upon regulatory guidance concerning the proper country of origin or value of fossils."

US Customs House, New Orleans. Courtesy  CBP
Meanwhile, an October 2012 Customs and Border Protection (CBP) tariff classification ruling (N233501), which addressed ancient coins, affirmed that cultural property importers bear the burden to comply with legal requirements. (The case also demonstrates the mechanism by which U.S. Customs can help importers who seek assistance with compliance).  In this case, the goods reviewed by CBP's National Commodity Specialist Division were "a collection of 12 ancient Greek coins ... obtained from different places and spanning different periods of time" and collectively labeled "The Ancient Greek World – 12 Silver Coin Collection." Also examined were "The Roman Love," described as two coins from the Roman Empire bearing portraits of Antonius Pius and Faustina I.

The customs ruling explained the importer's duty under 19 CFR 134.1(b) to declare the coins' "country of origin," accurately describing the country of manufacture or production. The ruling proposed the following sound advice to help the petitioning importer comply with the law: "Ionia (ancient Greek) is an ancient region of central coastal Anatolia in present-day Turkey. As such, it would not be unreasonable that some or all of the coins in The Ancient Greek World – 12 Silver Coin Collection be marked with country of origin Turkey and the 2 coins in The Roman Love in Genuine Silver (Pius and Faustina I) be marked with country of origin Italy.  If evidence exists that the coins were made in multiple modern day countries, but uncertain as to which specific country or countries, then list all possible countries in which the coins could have been made."

What these cases demonstrate is that cultural property importers who bring goods into the United States must openly and accurately--to the best extent possible--disclose where cultural objects come from as well as any other legally required information. Arguments to the contrary will continue to be rejected by legal officials.  That is because importers are in the best position to describe their products to customs officers, who often must rely on importers' declarations to either permit or stop goods from entering the country.

More on this topic can be found by reading Importing Cultural Objects Legally.


This post is researched, written, and published on the blog Cultural Heritage Lawyer Rick St. Hilaire at culturalheritagelawyer.blogspot.com. Text copyrighted 2012 by Ricardo A. St. Hilaire, Attorney & Counselor at Law, PLLC. Any unauthorized reproduction or retransmission of this post is prohibited. CONTACT: www.culturalheritagelawyer.com