You Can't Fight City Hall

by Nigel Matthews

February 24, 2011

Imagine how proud you would be if the government of some foreign country—or even your own—decided your car was “a national treasure.” Pretty cool, right? When’s the parade? You might naturally believe such recognition comes with an official-looking certificate you could frame and hang over the vehicle out in the garage. But if recent news is any indication, you’re more likely to be ordered to hand the thing over.

In Canada, the talk among historic vehicle owners has recently revolved around a now missing 1904 Model C—not just any Ford, but the oldest Ford Motor car ever built in the country.

In 2007, this special vehicle was sold with little fanfare to a U.S. collector. But then Heritage Canada, a governmental arm that operates an application review board for exports leaving the country, stepped in with an injunction denying the export permit on the grounds that the car was a “cultural artefact of outstanding national importance.” Only problem was the Ford suddenly disappeared. Officially, the car is missing with Canadian officials speculating that the new owner smuggled the vehicle back to the United States (maybe Florida) inside an enclosed trailer. Click here to read more on the story.

The events in Canada are similar to another story that happened in 2009, this time in the United States, where U.S. authorities assisted the French government in seizing a very special 1919 Turcat-Méry owned by a Seattle classic car collector.

Duc de Montpensier, the last descendant of the French Bourbon dynasty, once owned the rare roadster. He died in 1924 and his wife inherited his royal estate, which included a chateau in Randan, France.

Then, in 1991, the French government deemed the entire Montpensier estate a French national treasure that contained "goods of public historic interest." According to the French Code du Patrimoine (a.k.a. “The Heritage Act”), this designation prevents the export of any part of the estate.

Nevertheless, in 2004, a relative sold the roadster to a dealer in the Netherlands. It was then sold again for $927,518 in 2005 to the Seattle collector who installed it in a proud place in his Washington state garage.

In 2008, the Turcat-Méry was again up for auction at Pebble Beach only to be inexplicably dropped from the catalogue at the last minute by auctioneers Gooding & Co. Speculation was that the news of the auction alerted French government officials who took newfound interest in the car.

That was confirmed three months later when the U.S. government filed a civil forfeiture complaint for the vehicle. The subsequent investigation concluded it was a “historical monument” and its removal from France was illegal so the vehicle was seized and returned to France leaving the Seattle owner without the vehicle, though he was technically allowed to retain ownership provided the car never leave French soil again.

So what would you do? Turn over your prized car, challenge the ruling in court, or spirit the vehicle away to parts unknown? Log your thoughts in the comments section below.

Comments

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