The value of collecting begins and ends with what’s available and in what quantities. But what if you’re not supposed to collect it at all? There actually are quite a few items that, by law, collectors are not allowed to handle, sell, pawn, trade, auction, or represent in a transaction because they are protected national treasures.
What do you do if it’s a family heirloom? How can you legally convey the object outside of your own family? It pays to know which items are protected and if there are exceptions to the rules.
Moon Rocks and Moon Dust
Only 12 astronauts have landed on the moon in six manned missions from 1969 to 1972. Over the course of those moon landings, about 842 lbs. of moon rocks and moon dust were brought back to Earth. All lunar “rubble” is considered a national treasure and is owned exclusively by the United States government. It cannot be sold publicly or privately unless it came from an official artifact that was given to an astronaut after their mission ended. An example would be moon dust embedded on patches, parts of spacesuits, boots, bags, or equipment. At one time NASA insisted that all of the artifacts kept by astronauts were government property, but Public Law 112-185, signed by President Barack Obama on September 25, 2012, gave clear title to artifacts in the personal possession of Mercury, Gemini and Apollo astronauts. Go to www.collectspace.com for more insight.
Families of astronauts may sell lunar artifacts at will, with the exception of moon rocks. They are still regarded as national treasures and held by the US government.
Tragedy struck in 2003 when the Space Shuttle Columbia broke apart during re-entry, killing all seven crew members and scattering debris across a wide area in Texas, Louisiana and Arkansas. Some 2,000 debris fields were searched by a thousand or so volunteers. During the search, debris from the Columbia turned up on online auction sites, triggering a warning from NASA that some of it may be hazardous.
After the September 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center towers in New York City, firefighters and other first responders volunteered to help with search and recovery efforts. Unfortunately, many items associated with these recovery efforts were later determined to have been looted from the site.
Any piece of debris, no matter how small, from any national disaster is considered to be a national memorial, and any attempt to keep, transfer, sell, trade, or otherwise profit from it is considered theft of government property. Families with relics from national disasters, no matter how unintentional, should return the item to the proper federal authorities.
Medals of Honor
The Medal of Honor is considered the oldest combat medal in the US Armed Forces. Established in 1862, the Medal of Honor is awarded by the president of the United States in the name of Congress for “… conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of life above and beyond the call of duty,” per 18 USC 704. Since 1862, Congress has awarded 3,520 Medals of Honor.
There are three different versions of the modern Medal of Honor, each specific to the Army, Navy and Air Force. However, US Code prohibits “purchasing, attempting to purchase, soliciting for purchase, mailing, shipping, importing, exporting, producing blank certificates of receipt for, manufacturing, selling, attempting to sell, advertising for sale, trading, bartering, or exchanging for anything of value” a Medal of Honor.
So, if your family has one, what should you do with it? Keep it as a family heirloom. If it is necessary to remove it from the family, the medal should be returned to the Department of Defense.
The Academy Award, aka The ‘Oscar’
“…and the Oscar goes to…” is the phrase every actor, director, producer or other motion picture professional hopes will be followed by the sweet sound of their own name. The winner’s ritual goes like this: stand, look surprised, look humble while enjoying the lavish applause, and deliver a witty speech while clutching the gold-tone statuette you just received. If you’re lucky enough to be the recipient of this most coveted of all film awards, you learn sooner or later that there’s just one small problem: the Oscar isn’t really yours. It is essentially leased to you by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS).
From 1929 until 1950, an Oscar belonged to the recipient, and they could do whatever they pleased with it. They, and their families, were allowed to sell them, if they wished to do so. After 1950, however, the Academy had each award encumbered, meaning that if the recipient wanted to sell it, they had to first offer it to the Academy for $1.
The 1933 Gold Double Eagle Coin
It was a gold coin that really wasn’t. To help ease the banking crisis of 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered that gold was no longer legal tender. All gold pieces, certificates or bullion in circulation were supposed to be turned into the federal government in exchange for currency.
As of the time of Roosevelt’s decree, 445,500 $20 gold pieces had been minted for the year 1933. All but two were subsequently melted down. However, about 20 were stolen from the US Mint, with about 13 remaining at large.
By the early 1940s, between eight and 10 specimens were known. Two of them were sold by Texas dealer B. Max Mehl. In 1944, a journalist enquired of the Mint regarding the 1933 double eagles. Mint officials could find no record of any issuance of the coins, and decided those in private hands must have been obtained illegally. Over the next few years, the Secret Service seized a number of specimens, which were subsequently melted. One piece, however, wound up in the hands of King Farouk of Egypt, who even obtained a U.S. export license for the coin. What became of the Farouk specimen after his death is unclear, but the coin resurfaced in the late 1990s. When brought to New York for sale to a prospective buyer, it was seized by U.S. authorities. After litigation, a compromise was reached to allow the coin to be auctioned, with the proceeds to be divided equally between the government and the private owners. In 2002 this coin sold at auction by Sotheby’s for $7,590,020. The purchase price included $20 paid to the federal government to monetize a coin it contended had never been officially released.
In 2004, 10 specimens of the 1933 double eagle were submitted to the Mint for authentication by the heirs of a Philadelphia jeweler who may have been involved in obtaining them from the Mint in 1933. The Mint authenticated them but refused to give them back. The heirs brought suit against the government in 2006, and a federal judge ordered the government to file a forfeiture action regarding the coins. The government brought such a suit in 2009, and it was tried in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania beginning on July 7, 2011. On July 21, 2011, a jury decided that the coins had been properly seized by the Federal government. Judge Legrome D. Davis confirmed that jury verdict on August 29, 2012. On April 17, 2015, a panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled that the government had failed to file its forfeiture action in a timely manner, and that the heirs were entitled to the coins. That ruling was vacated by the full court on July 28, 2015, and the case was set for further argument. On August 1, 2016, the full Third Circuit ruled in favor of the government, upholding the jury verdict. On November 4 of that year, the heirs asked the Supreme Court to review the case. The request was refused on April 21, 2017, thus ending the case.
It has been legal to own gold again since 1975, however the stolen $20 gold coins are still regarded as contraband and are subject to confiscation, fines and imprisonment.
And speaking of eagles, our national symbol is legally protected under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, which assesses criminal penalties for those who “take, possess, sell, purchase, barter, offer to sell, purchase or barter, transport, export or import, at any time or any manner, any bald eagle … [or any golden eagle], alive or dead, or any part, nest, or egg thereof.”
However, to Native Americans, eagle feathers are sometimes used in religious ceremonies. This is why the National Eagle Repository was established by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. The agency issues permits to members of federally recognized tribes allowing them to possess eagle feathers for such ceremonies. Families with eagle feathers or eagle parts should deposit them in the National Eagle Repository for proper distribution.