(Originally published in The Numismatist Vol. 107 #1- January 1994)
Article by Daniel Sedwick
A coin dealer runs into some unexpected pitfalls when he attempts to reenter the United States with coins purchased in Europe.
You may have read of the occasional coin dealer who gets fined, or even briefly jailed, for bringing valuable coins into the United States without declaring them to U.S. Customs. Of course, if the dealer—or someone else—had mailed the coins from abroad at a low declared value, probably no postal inspector would know, care or be able to judge their real value. (However, the risks and delay of mail make this an unappealing alternative.) So why not simply declare the coins and show the invoices? Here is what can happen when a dealer plays it straight.
My story begins in Zurich, Switzerland. I had attended a major auction where I purchased a little more than $10,000 in 17th- and 18th-century Spanish-American colonial gold and silver coins. The auction house prepared a special receipt for me to present to Swiss Customs at the airport. “That will get me out,” I thought, “but what shall I do about U.S. Customs?”
Arriving at the Zurich airport with the coins safely tucked in a money belt, I found the Swiss Customs booth to be no more than an automated kiosk. Posted instructions in five languages told me to put my purchase declaration on a glass surface. Expecting it to operate like a fax machine or copier, I placed my receipt on the glass and held it there. When a speaker barked unintelligibly in my ear, I realized that a camera was trained on my receipt and that my arm was in the way. Once the machine got a look at my receipt, it said “O.K.” (just like that) and let me go.
Next stop was the Immigration booth, behind which I noticed some curtained stalls, presumably for conducting strip searches. I must have looked “clean,” as I breezed right on by.
My plane left Zurich in mid-morning and stopped for a scheduled three-hour layover in Amsterdam, a city new to me. Amsterdam’s international airport has a unique name, Schiphol (pronounced “SKIP-hole”), and can only be described as a human zoo. Swarming around me were Europeans, Africans, Middle Easterners, Far Easterners and others I could not readily identify, each in national garb. I wanted to escape this menagerie and use my allotted time to glimpse at least the streets of Amsterdam, but I could not. To leave the airport, I would have to go through Dutch Customs, and since my receipt was meant only for Swiss Customs, I did not want to take a chance on unknown rules in the Netherlands. My one consolation was the fact that a quick trip into an unfamiliar city while carrying $10,000 worth of coins was not a good idea anyway.
Instead, I relaxed in the in-transit terminal, and well that I did: with a six-hour time difference and a 10-hour transatlantic flight, my day would be 25-percent longer than usual. Once on the plane, I breathed a bit easier, having gotten through Europe without a hitch. But U.S. Customs was still ahead.
Upon arriving at the Orlando International Airport, I approached the Customs area and declared the coins and their value. I knew the coins were not dutiable, and so did the Customs agent who greeted me. But coins, as opposed to liquor, cigars or caviar, are not the usual declaration. Rather than routinely initialing my papers and waving me along, the Customs agent raised her eyebrows and decided to check the immense “book” of regulations for a possible complication. And find it she did (joyfully): Any merchandise with a value above $1,000 (or something like that) imported for commercial resale, whether dutiable or not, requires a “formal entry.
The agent’s smile showed mixed emotions of elation (at discovering a relevant old statute) and disappointment (at having created more work). At this point I knew it would not be an easy process. Forget our current level of computer technology; I foresaw a long session of filling out forms and whatever else was required for a formal entry. Why was all this necessary when there was no duty on the coins?
“Statistical data,” the Customs agent explained. Would it ever matter that my coins were formally entered into the records of U.S. Customs? “We don’t make the rules,” was the only reply.
The Customs agent assumed the coins to be for commercial resale, which they were. I could have avoided all this by claiming to have bought them for my personal collection. In a sense, my inventory is my collection, so what’s the difference? I conceded that the coins were for resale—mainly because a 24-year-old like me does not look the type to add $10,000 of coins to his collection. The alternate assumption—especially on a flight from Amsterdam—would be laundering of drug money. Well, I thought, despite the delay, at least I got home, and I still had my coins…but not for long.
The Customs agent inquired about the name of my Customs broker, for naturally only a licensed Customs broker could submit a formal entry. Alas, I had no local Customs broker. When the agent suggested I consult a phone book, I pictured dozens of such brokers, all just waiting for my call and an opportunity to bail me out quickly for a small fee.
But the process was not that simple. A Customs broker might be able to do a “rush job” (for an extra charge, of course) and fill out the requisite forms within a few hours, but the completed forms would have to wait a day or two for approval from a Customs agent. I had no recourse but to leave the coins there until the paperwork was done.
Leave the coins? Under what security? This was not an ANA bourse with armed guards or trained attack dogs, and I was not about to allow my coins to be pilfered here after the strain of transporting them safely from Europe. I absolutely refused to leave the coins unless they were guarded—at least under lock and key. The Customs agent assured me the airline had a secured vault in which to impound the coins. She paged an airline representative.
The representative knew of no such secured vault. “We have a warehouse, if that’s what you mean.” And she had to check with her superiors to see whether they would be responsible for $10,000 worth of coins in an unsecured storage area.
Meanwhile, the Customs agent led me to a curtained stall like those in Zurich. There I had to drop my pants—visible below the curtain to those outside—to struggle with the money belt, which had become knotted. (The Customs agents outside the booth probably wondered just where I stored my coins.)
I handed the belt to an agent, who looked at it with curiosity—and probably disbelief at the value of the coins—and then dumped it with a copy of the receipt from Switzerland into a shabby box. He then taped the box shut, carelessly, and fastened a string around it with an ostensibly irremovable clasp.
I read and acknowledged the “cargo transfer manifest” that the airline representative assured me—though I doubted it—would hold the airline liable in case anything happened to the coins in the warehouse. Despite the bureaucratic detail, at no time was I required to sign anything except my Customs declaration. I had all my receipts, though, and at this point I just wanted to get home and fall into bed.
Since I arrived after business hours on a Thursday, I had to wait until Friday morning to call a Customs broker. Maybe he was just mollifying me, but the broker I chose assured me that with a quick start there was a chance the coins would be released that afternoon. I also was told that the fee for a formal entry would be $85. This seemed steep for such a trivial service, but the other brokers I called proposed similar figures, so what could I do? I faxed copies of the receipts to the broker and waited.
I phoned again at the end of the day, but apparently he had been very busy and had not gotten to my matter yet, and yes, sir, he would work on it first thing Monday. So my easily pilferable coins sat all weekend in a warehouse intended for heavy cargo.
Starting Monday, the broker began to disclose, one by one, all the other necessary charges beyond the $85 for formal entry. First, a bond was required. The fee: $26. Next, the processing fee for submitting a formal entry: $21. And, lastly (for now), a $10 service charge “to cover the overtime for Customs agents.”
On Tuesday, the paperwork was finally completed; I was prepared to meet the broker at the airport and take my coins home. I could drive to the airport to release the coins on bond that day, the broker said, but I would have to wait until Customs processed the forms before I could pay the fee and be on my way. That could take all day, so it would be better to go home and return to the airport after Customs had finished.
As I live about 40 minutes from the airport through heavy traffic, it sounded like an immense waste of time to make two trips or wait there all day, so naturally I took the broker up on his offer to have the coins delivered by courier…and that would be another $15.
This created still another complication and another delay, as the broker now had to prepare a power of attorney so the coins could be released without my presence. Despite saving me the trip(s) to the airport, this power of attorney, without my signature, legally transferred custody of my $10,000 in rare coins to an unknown third party. This alarmed me.
It appeared easy for all these agents and brokers to be so casual when no possession of theirs was at stake. Still, out of frustration I chose expediency over safety, and consented to the power of attorney. The new form was not ready until late Wednesday, when the broker finally delivered the whole mess of red tape to Customs. On Thursday, one week after my arrival in the States, Customs finally released my coins.
Friday, again the last day of the work week and my last chance to avoid having my coins spend another weekend unsecured, I called the broker to find out why the coins hadn’t been delivered to my office. Apparently the courier service’s employees couldn’t be held responsible for $10,000 in merchandise in so small a package, so the owner of the courier service would have to deliver the coins. That would be another $10.
Since I was on my way to a coin show in Orlando that morning, I suggested he deliver the package to my booth at the show. That would cost still another $20, because they were not delivering “to a warehouse.” The original $15 courier fee had ballooned to $45.
I did get the coins that Friday, still packaged in the battered box from Customs, hastily and carelessly retaped shut (the contents had to be inspected for bond), along with a bill for $187. Out of that $187, not one cent was for “duty.” The only money Customs received was $10 for overtime, which probably was unnecessary except for the extra work required by a situation like mine.
Now the government has its record that $10,000 worth of Spanish colonial coins returned to America. I would bet that record is merely a useless statistic, one that wasted a week of my time (not to mention my inability to sell or deliver the coins to customers that week) and cost $187.
If lawmakers knew (or cared) that the chief beneficiaries of petty Customs rules like these are third parties who really serve no useful purpose in such a case and who function at the taxpayers’ expense (though I did deduct the expense for income tax purposes, thereby returning the favor), maybe they would establish more realistic policies. Until then, honest businessmen will be tempted to find loopholes to avoid such absurdities.
I took the box of coins and paid the courier $187. I played by the rules, but I did not feel virtuous—I felt exploited. I was mindful of what could go wrong in strange countries with different languages and unfamiliar rules, yet the only hassle I experienced was right here at home.
The next time you buy a foreign coin of more than nominal value, remember that part of its price may be going into the pocket of a Customs broker or courier, or for overtime pay to a U.S. Customs agent.
Daniel Sedwick has been a full-time coin dealer since his graduation from Duke University in 1989. His specialty is colonial coins of Spanish America.
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