eBay, Gov’t Regs, International Sanctions: What’s a Collector to do?

Two Kaskara swords – a type used in the Sudan, Chad and Eritrea from the 14th century to the late 19th century – and a spear that was also typical to the region. While these swords and spears are associated with the Sudan and were carried by the army of the Mahdi in the late 19th century it is impossible to know if these are truly of “Sudanese” origin or not. What is known and established is that the swords have been in the author’s collection prior to the OFAC sanctions against Sudan.

Two Kaskara swords – a type used in the Sudan, Chad and Eritrea from the 14th century to the late 19th century – and a spear that was also typical to the region. While these swords and spears are associated with the Sudan and were carried by the army of the Mahdi in the late 19th century it is impossible to know if these are truly of “Sudanese” origin or not. What is known and established is that the swords have been in the author’s collection prior to the OFAC sanctions against Sudan.

 

by Peter Suciu

Many militaria collectors have strong feelings (voiced all too often on various collector forums) about what eBay and PayPal allow and won’t allow. Third Reich items, specifically those with the swastika, are banned on eBay as well as its international e-commerce payments and money transfers service PayPal. However, this is just one part of what is truly “banned” or under embargo for sale. While different nations have different rules as to what militaria is allowed and what isn’t, the situation has become increasingly complex – even convoluted for American collectors.

There are a number of other “bans,” many of which are overseen by different government agencies and departments. It is generally known that firearms are regulated by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF); but there are a plethora of other complications.

The Stolen Valor Act of 2013 amended the previous version of the law, which was struck down by the Supreme Court of the United States for violating freedom of speech in the case United States v. Alvarez. The new version was passed by the 113th United States Congress and amended the federal criminal code to make it a crime for a person to fraudulently claim having received any of a series of particular military decorations with the intention of obtaining money, property, or other tangible benefit from convincing someone that he or she rightfully did receive that award.

It is not the Stolen Valor Act, however, that bans the sale of the Medal of Honor. That is regulated by federal law, specifically Title 18, United States Code, Section 704 – which prohibits the buying, selling, trading, importing, exporting, or bartering for anything of value for a Medal of Honor. Other U.S. medals remain a gray area for collectors.

Dagger and sword collectors generally are free of restrictions that firearm collectors face, except when it comes to those that have ivory handles, as ivory is banned for all commercial import into the United States as part of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s commitment to 1989 African Elephant Conservation Act (AECA).

What is also notable is that this year, the FWS amended the rules that have eliminated broad exceptions that had allowed commercial import of “antique ivory.” As it stands, it is still legal to purchase certain 100-year old items that were “either created in the United States or imported prior to September 22, 1982.” This means that collectors of vintage Imperial German daggers and British swords that may have ivory handles could still have a problem. If the item isn’t in the country already, it probably can’t legally be imported. The question will also become whether items – going way beyond militaria – that have any ivory will be banned for future sale entirely. While the purpose of the law is certainly reasonable, in practice, it does nothing to protect current elephants.

 

Foreign Assets Control

Then there is the Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), which “administers and enforces economic and trade sanctions based on US foreign policy and national security goals against targeted foreign countries and regimes, terrorists, international narcotics traffickers, those engaged in activities related to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and other threats to the national security, foreign policy or economy of the United States.”

In other words, militaria items – even those that could be deemed antiques – that come from some countries could be banned, and collectors trying to import or even just purchase these items could find themselves in trouble. While North Korea and Cuba likely come to mind as nations that have sanctions imposed against them, those are just two nations that are on a much larger list that includes Iran, Iraq, Burma, Belarus, Syria, and the Sudan. The Office of Foreign Assets Control could only confirm to Military Trader that the importation into the United States, directly or indirectly, of Sudanese-origin goods is prohibited – regardless of the age of the goods.

For collectors of vintage arms and armor, this means many pieces related to the Mahdi campaigns of the 1880s and 1890s – which included the Battle of Khartoum and the Battle of Omdurman – would now be banned for import in the United States. This is the more complicated to understand, given that the sanctions against the Sudan date to February of 2012 while those against South Sudan were only instituted in June of 2014.

Where the issue also has become complicated is the fact that PayPal has flagged some accounts for dealing in Sudanese items – even those that may have been in the United States for decades. International Military Antiques of New Jersey (IMA-USA) ran into problems on what is often its busiest week of the year as a result of PayPal’s handling of the situation.

“My dad bought this African spear at the Allentown Gun Show, and we figured it was Sudanese,” said Alex Cranmer, vice president at IMA. “We posted it for sale on the website and included it in our Memorial Day newsletter. We made it payable by PayPal – and that’s when the trouble started.”

The spear was quickly “purchased” but when the transaction was stopped by PayPal Cranmer told Military Trader. Not only was this transaction stopped, but it basically shut down IMA’s PayPal account during the Memorial Day holiday weekend.

“We were shut down within two hours and no one could pay for anything with PayPal,” Cranmer added. “Then our eBay sales were shut down as well. It took two days to get reinstated. They did this to us over the spear, which we bought in the United States and only assumed was from the Sudan. We do $2 million a year with PayPal.”

Michigan-based Fagan Arms, which has been in business since 1965 and has imported antique arms and armor from England and Europe, also ran afoul of the issue only recently. Tom Fagan told Military Trader that the company was warned by PayPal as well. His company has tried to address the issue by removing references to the region. Instead, Fagan Arms will list the items as being from the “Mahdi War” era (1882-1896) – likely a good point as few outside of the African arms collecting community and academia likely even know much about the Mahdi or the subsequent Anglo-Egyptian campaign into the region.

What of course makes some of this ironic is that as of press time Sudanese swords were still listed on eBay; as were North Korean flags, medals and badges, many of which were post- Korean War; and Cuban caps, medals, and uniforms. While it is eBay policy to ban the sale of certain Nazi items, it is OFAC that has placed actual sanctions on goods from the aforementioned countries.

 

This Soviet pattern SSh-68 “Cone Head” steel helmet was used by the Cuban forces in Grenada at the time of the 1983 U.S. invasion and taken as a war trophy. Why should it be considered contraband? (Private collection)

This Soviet pattern SSh-68 “Cone Head” steel helmet was used by the Cuban forces in Grenada at the time of the 1983 U.S. invasion and taken as a war trophy. Why should it be considered contraband? (Private collection)

General Orders on War Trophies

As previously reported by Military Trader, there is also the issue that, in the current climate, active duty soldiers are now discouraged to actually obtain items while serving aborad. General Order No. 1B, issued by U.S. Central Command on March 13, 2006, spelled out the rules for service members in the Middle East. The order prohibits:

“Taking or retaining of public or private property of an enemy or former enemy. … Individual war souvenirs may only be acquired if specifically authorized by USCENTCOM. Absent such express authorization, no weapon, munitions or military article of equipment obtained or acquired by any means other than official issue may be retained for personal use or shipped out of the USCENTCOM [area of operations] for personal retention.”

The other key point to this is that individual war souvenirs could only be acquired if specifically authorized by USCENTCOM, and absent such express authorization, no military article or equipment obtained or acquired by any means other than official issue could be retained for person use or shipped out of the area of operations for personal retention. Service members must fill out Defense Department Form 603-1 and get approval from superiors before they can take home their war trophies. Items considered to be “contraband” are confiscated by military or law enforcement authorities.

 

Duty on Personal Import of Antiques

The final part of this is that even the non-military world traveler, to some extent, may find the buying of militaria or historical collectibles to be somewhat confusing. For one thing, many nations, including Russia, Iraq, Egypt, and China have banned the export of any historically significant piece. That means a medal picked up at market could land the traveler in trouble when leaving the country.

Coming into the country is another issue as Americans returning from abroad must face the confusion of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which “purposes an antique must be over 100 years of age at the time of importation. Antiques classified under heading 9706 in the Harmonized Tariff Schedule (HTS) are duty-free, provided the importer has proof of the goods’ age (i.e. the year of manufacture).”

CBP added that certain items, “namely original artwork, pearls, semi-precious and precious stones, stamps, coins, and collector’s pieces (see 9705 for details) should be classified under other provisions of Chapter 97, (or 71 for stones) even if they are antiques.”

In other words, while collecting of militaria should be a straight-forward hobby, the truth is that unfortunately what is actually completely legal to own is becoming increasingly confusing. Collectors should do research, consult with regulations and keep detailed records to err on the side of caution.

 

 

 

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