Why Import Marks are under discussion NOW

Steve at the Firearm Blog has a brief post here which led us to this: top auction house Rock Island Auctions posted a long and well-argued critique of import markings on collector guns. BLUF, they say they reduce the gun’s value by a large amount — maybe half.

Prominence of marks reduced by wet-sanding and cold blue. Marks still legible.

Prominence of marks reduced by wet-sanding and cold blue. Marks still legible. This kind of unsightly dot-peened mark is typical of Century; many other importers and manufacturers use the same ugly technology.

But what Steve, who doesn’t miss much, missed is that Rock Island didn’t fire this salvo as a demonstration alone. It had a target, and that target was other top auctioneer James D. Julia. The reason? Julia has an extremely rare, extremely advanced collection of Lugers to auction, the sort of high-end bauble that he and Rock Island both specialize in. But — and you knew there was a “but”! —  this collection is Dr Geoffrey Sturgess’s. And Sturgess was out of the USA… in der Schweiz, in Zurich, to be exact. So the guns, in order to be auctioned here (the single largest market for serviceable non-antique firearms) had to have gruesome ATF-compliant markings engraved on them.

First, Rock Island’s arguments:

It doesn’t take much of a leap to see the correlation of depreciating factors shared by numismatists (coin collectors) and firearms collectors.  Neither group wants their treasured items damaged by previous users, cleaned improperly if at all, counterfeited, corroded, stained, damaged, mutilated, bent, or marked after the initial manufacture or minting.  In both fields, damage reduces desirability, its ability to be traded, bought, or sold, and in turn the object’s value.  It is with this in mind that we discuss the subject of import markings on firearms.

The majority of collectors love history and even if they don’t they certainly love the financial benefits that an exciting, documented history can provide.  All collectors love condition.  If import marks can neither imbue a gun with a fascinating history nor enhance its condition, then they are superfluous marrings that are to be avoided.  No one sets out to collect the most mediocre examples of their hobby.  No one sets out to buy a truly poor specimen that is of little interest to like minded enthusiasts.  No one wants to apologetically explain or excuse away the glaring flaws in their collection.

Now, Julia’s rebuttal, as posted in a Luger forum that hasn’t let us register (why not? Borchardt only knows).

Before importing Dr. Sturgess’s collection, we discussed at length, with the Simpsons, how this legal issue could be handled so that the guns appeal would not suffer. Simpsons had traditionally marked imports with a hand engraver which created very small and very acceptable markings. Brad however did some research and discovered a new high-tech laser device that would produce the legal markings required by law but yet do so in an almost imperceptible manner. The results from their new laser device are extraordinary, and I’m sure that almost no collector will have an issue with any of the import markings on the Sturgess guns. We will be acknowledging in our catalog each gun with an import mark. I have also attached here a copy of that acknowledgement page from our catalog explaining our import marks. I hope this explains and also allays any concerns anyone might have regarding import marks.

Bob Simpson actually acquired a $36,000 laser machine to place the importer marks inside the magazine well of the pistol.

Import20Mark_zps3446395d

This may not comply with the ATF marking regs these days, though (ATF does, however, grant variances to importers, if you can show an alternative means of compliance [AMOC] with their intent of being able to pick up the trace of the gun at the original importer or manufacturer).

Now, we don’t take sides in this dispute. Both Jim Julia and the Rock Island auctioneers are honest tradesmen. We’re just airing the disagreement with, we hope, fair attention to both sides.

Why do they need these ugly-ass marks anyway?

If you ever wondered why modern guns have much more unsightly engraving than the old roll-marks:

For firearms manufactured or imported on and after January 30, 2002, the engraving, casting, or stamping (impressing) of this information must be to a minimum depth of .003 inch. The additional information includes:
(A) The model, if such designation has been made;
(B) The caliber or gauge;
(C) Your name (or recognized abbreviation) and also, when applicable, the name of the foreign manufacturer;
(D) In the case of a domestically made firearm, the city and State (or recognized abbreviation thereof) where you as the manufacturer maintain your place of business; and
(E) In the case of an imported firearm, the name of the country in which it was manufactured and the city and State (or recognized abbreviation thereof) where you as the importer maintain your place of business. For additional requirements relating to imported firearms, see Customs regulations at 19 CFR part 134.

Here’s the last revision to the rule as published in the Federal Register and hosted at ATF (everybody else’s link to this, including ATF’s own, weems to be wrong thanks to one of their regular website redisorganizations). Actually, there’s one more revision, but all it does is fix a typo in the original; they want marks 1/16″ high, not 1 1/16″.

Before everybody tees off on the ATF about this retarded rule, remember that the ATF has to implement the retarded law written by the cretins in Congress. “In Congress, in Congress, we make our laws incongruous!”

And ATF’s justification for the rule is the large number of crime guns recovered by law enforcement with defaced serial numbers — the original Federal Register link above says Baltimore saw 15% of recovered guns hacked like that. Of course, the numbers are still recoverable, and it’s probably worth doing if the crims thought it was worth hiding.

Update and WARNING

There are people out there who say an end user can legally remove an import mark, and even claim to have a letter to that effect from ATF. Here’s a 2007 GunBroker comment thread on that.  There is a claim in the thread that the ATF released a letter to one of the posters, saying:

“Thank you for visiting ATF’s Website. As stated on our site, generally, we do not answer technical questions via e-mail, but I contacted our Firearms Technology Branch (FTB) and was advised the following:
“”Section 922(k) of Title 18, U.S.C. does not prohibit removal of markings other than serial number. However, removal of required markings from any weapon subject to the National Firearms Act, such as a machinegun, is prohibited under Title 26, U.S.C. section 5861(g).””

If you have any further questions, please call them on 304-260-1700. Regards,”

And the poster goes on to add:

My understanding from ATF Technical Division is that the import marks (NOT the import serial number) can be removed since the firearm in question is now registered in the U.S by the serial number. It’s in the books as they say. No serial number can be removed just the import marks.

Here’s the actual wording of 922(k) (source, Cornell law library):

(k) It shall be unlawful for any person knowingly to transport, ship, or receive, in interstate or foreign commerce, any firearm which has had the importer’s or manufacturer’s serial number removed, obliterated, or altered or to possess or receive any firearm which has had the importer’s or manufacturer’s serial number removed, obliterated, or altered and has, at any time, been shipped or transported in interstate or foreign commerce.

And relying on that ATF email, which ATF itself says several places is not how they communicate “officially,” several people indicate that they’re willing to deface import marks…

Do NOT do this. Again, as we have said before, if you didn’t pay your lawyer for it, it ain’t legal advice, but we would strongly urge all of you never to render a legally-required mark illegible. Even if the ATF wouldn’t land on you with both feet (and they’d rather prosecute you that pursue some gang banger, outlaw bike gang or terrorist, because you’re easy), there’s the fact that many, probably most, collectors would think they had been defrauded. By you.

Contrary to popular opinion, it is very difficult to remove marks made to ATF regs (three-thousandths of an inch deep) so that they are illegible. They may be erased to the naked eye, but there’s a whole industry of tools used by authorities (criminal investigators, technical intelligence guys), archaeologists and restorers to read defaced or degraded marks.

One guy in the thread refinishes the gun (actually the Makarov with the typically amateurish Century mark seen above) with the incidental result that the mark, while still clearly legible, is less prominent. It’s hard to see a legal beef with this — the ATF concern is that the trace on the weapon can be picked up from its original importer, which is still discernible — but of course it’s destructive to collector value, although whether it’s any more destructive than the sort of crude marking used by Century is anybody’s guess.

15 thoughts on “Why Import Marks are under discussion NOW

  1. Tam

    Tennessee Guns managed to discreetly mark a small batch of Finnish Lugers along the exposed bottom edge of the receiver. I shoulda bought one.

    1. OldBikr

      I happen to own an East German Makarov. It is marked “Makarov mod. 9×18 mm Ernst Thaelmann Germany S P Trad. St Alba”.

      The marks are tiny and partially obscured by the hand grip. The marks the East German government, done in electro-pencil are quite a bit larger.

      I don’t have a problem with the import marks as long as they are discrete and clearly and evenly delineated. Those marks from C.A.I. are ugly as hell by comparison to the ones on my Makarov and I wouldn’t buy anything from an importer that put such graffiti on a weapon.

      Having said this I might use such a marred weapon as a practical carry piece for concealed use. After all a weapon carried a lot will get plenty of blemishes.

      1. Hognose Post author

        Yep. I’ve been beaten up for carrying a rare, 1987 un-import-marked CZ-75 all round the world, with the gouges and defacements one might expect. When I started with it, it was just a gun from a gun shop. It would have appreciated if I locked it up. Instead, I took it to war.

        It has no import marks as I imported it personally on an ATF Form 6 for my own use when returning from Germany to the USA that year. That’s perfectly legal. I think it still is, and even an importer or dealer used to be able to import a weapon for personal use without marking it — perhaps he still can. Weapons for resale must be marked, period, and like any ATF ruling to violate it is a serious felony in the USA.

        As a US law, it’s only of secondary interest to other nations’ collectors, except inasmuch as it hinders the world commerce in the rarest and most collectible guns. For example, Canadian collectors don’t have to have new imports of C&R-type guns so defaced, but then they can’t sell them into the much larger US market, either.

        Import markings do not change in any way the practical value of a gun, only the collector value (much like fair wear and tear, or rebluing). These things may turn a collector off but if you want a shooter or carry gun, they’re just character marks, as long as the bore is good and the action suitably tight.

        Marks under the grip, and marks smaller than 1/16″ and shallower than 0.003″, were legal until circa 2002. The ATF’s new guidance requires them to be visible without any disassembly. Even the new Simpson markings are borderline on that, but I’m fairly confident that Bob Simpson has a letter of variance from ATF authorizing them.

    2. Hognose Post author

      The link to Jim Julia’s post illustrates a Luger marked in that fashion. It’s a lot more obtrusive than the Simpson marking, but less so than the more common side-of-the-receiver marking. For people who just want “a” Luger, or who want to shoot their Lugers, no sweat. Indeed, I have an Artillery I bought cheap because it was reblued. Like an import mark, that diminishes collector value, so what? I shoot it. It’s fun. (Pity the Euro vee-notch and pyramid sights are so awful).

      1. Tam

        Yeah, I really just want a shooter-grade Luger myself.

        Also, I knew better than to click all the way through to the auction site… KNEW better… and I went and did it anyway.

        *sigh* More incentive to get rich.

        1. Hognose Post author

          Repeat after me… “Hi my name is [__TAM__] and I’m a gunaholic.”

          “Hi Tam! The first step is recognizing you have a problem. When did you hit rock bottom?”

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  3. GunnerMan

    I have seen this topic all over the web. A couple things that concern me.

    I’m sure both auction houses have sold lugers that do not fully comply with the ATF for applying the import marks. In fact when I look at Julias catalog it is obvious many of the lugers from that collection are not properly marked. At least not according to the ATF specification. PLUS there is a question of the buyer might have to pay an additional excise tax!

    With all the attention this collection is getting and with potential problems the last thing I want is the ATF showing up at my house to take a look at my import marked firearms! I am going to pass on this one.

  4. bigcollector

    All arguments aside, some of the guns in this collection obviously do not have the import marks applied per ATF rules. Who wants to spend that kind of money only to have the ATF show up at your door. This auction has too many people watching it if you know what I mean. STAY AWAY….not only that did you read the fine print on possibly having to pay an excise tax on these guns!

    1. Hognose Post author

      The ATF can issue an importer a “letter of variance” for alternate means of compliance with its regulations. I am told that this has been done quite a bit. I do not know if it was done in this case.

  5. Dan

    Dear Fellow Collectors,

    As many of you are aware, Rock Island Auction Company recently published an article as part of our ongoing series written by RIAC employees. This article pertained to import marks on collectable and investment grade firearms. This article has been widely read and received a great deal of attention in the firearms collecting community. An employee of RIAC wrote this article with full knowledge of the importation of the Dr. Geoffrey Sturgess Collection. In fact, it was because such an impressive collection was being imported that collectively we decided to address the topic. Not only would such an article be extremely relevant, but also very helpful to the gun collectors. We covered various sides of the issue, though thanks to many responses in various internet forums and comments sections there was still much that people had to say on the topic. With any article, there will be those who agree and those who dissent and both sides have been posting. The overall conclusion is import marks are detrimental to collectability and effect value down. Unfortunately, James Julia has taken our article as a direct attack, claiming that Rock Island Auction Company has “disparaged” both his auction service and the Sturgess Collection. Nothing could be further from the truth.

    Indeed, as a collector myself and my company have no reason to besmirch the Sturgess Collection; it is a lifetime of a collector’s work that we admire just as we do with so many collections that also indicate such dedication and passion. We have no reason to drive down gun values as Julia claims. For surely as such an effect would happen to Julia, it would also happen to us. The aphorism says, “a rising tide lifts all boats,” after all. Furthermore, we do not believe we have “damaged” nor had a “negative effect on the industry as a whole.” On the contrary, the article was written as an educational point of interest on a subject pertinent to collectors worldwide. Not once does the article mention James Julia or the Sturgess Collection by name in an attempt to call out either one. However, since Julia’s has addressed us directly in an email seeking “facts” and “the truth,” we should like to respond to this email and the specifics surrounding this sale. We shall do this in the interest of further protecting gun collectors, whether they are our customers or not.

    Regarding Import Marks
    We have seen the picture and document supplied by Julia showing an example of the import marks and unfortunately, they raise more questions than they answer. Julia promises “truth” and “facts” in his email, yet neglects to show collectors everything they need to make an informed decision. Both pictures showing import marks show the “SIMPSON LTD / G’BURG, IL” mark on a Luger pistol. While abbreviations are certainly allowed when making import marks, where is the rest of the required ATF importation information? As our article pointed out, by law several pieces of information are required to be included in the marking of a firearm for import. Certainly some information is already present on the gun, such as a serial number, and not required to be duplicated in the import markings, but where is the rest of the information? Sometimes however experimental guns do not have the serial number and the importer is required by law to assign one and mark the gun. Some Lugers will indicate that they are made in Germany, but most do not. Collectors and potential buyers must be shown where the importer marked that. This is not some grand challenge. This is an opportunity for transparency on the part of Julia for the benefit of the buying public. Where are the caliber markings? The law also says you must indicate the model of the gun if designated (27 CFR § 478.92). In the spirit of truth and fact, we ask Julia show the buying public where that has been properly marked on firearms requiring it.

    The placement of these marks also raises questions. ATF Guidelines clearly state that they “require markings that legibly identify each item or package and require that such markings be conspicuous… ‘conspicuous’ means that all required markings must be placed in such a manner as to be wholly unobstructed from plain view.” In Julia’s own words, their markings on the appropriate Sturgess Collection items have been described as “almost indistinguishable,” “imperceptible,” “impossible to see,” “non-noticeable,” and most damningly, “inconspicuous.” According to his own description of the marked items, they do not comply with ATF standards, which state, “Held further, an imported firearm with any part of the required marking partially or wholly obstructed from plain view is not marked in accordance with section 27 CFR 478.92 and 27 CFR 479.102,” (all emphasis as written). If the ATF judges these to be improperly marked, are they then contraband? While we do not know the answer, we believe this is one of several questions to which customers deserve an irrefutable answer. Furthermore, such markings are required to be “placed in a manner not susceptible of being readily obliterated, altered, or removed” (27 CFR § 479.102). The opening of the magazine well does not lend itself well to either of the above requirements and is, in our opinion, an attempt to circumvent the legal stipulations, but that is for the ATF to determine.

    Regarding Taxes
    We all know that Uncle Sam gets what is owed to him. Even people as powerful as Al Capone, Judy Garland, and Abbott & Costello have been brought down by not paying what was due. While we are not suggesting that anyone is currently not paying the United States properly, the issue remains unresolved of who will be paying the FAET taxes on these imported guns. Julia’s statement from his own attorney states that “James D. Julia, Inc. is not liable for paying FAET as it is not the beneficial owner of the firearms.” It goes further to indicate that only FFL dealers would have to pay if they are not using them for personal use or if they import less than 50 firearms per calendar year. However, when Butterfield’s sold the Rolf Muller Collection in 1994, it consisted of mostly antique European revolvers. Little did several prominent collectors know that a Federal Excise Tax would be incurred on such items as Lugers. 6 months after the sale a notice arrived stating that they would owe 10% of the entire sale price (including the buyer’s premium). The 50 gun exemption, as of October 1, 2005, did not yet apply then. In this case, the guns were imported not singularly, but as a collection. Therefore, there is no “under 50 gun” exemption.
    The attorney’s statement further says, “While we are confident in our position, we always caution clients that the TTB is not bound to take a similar view. We also take this opportunity to point out that anyone not our client may treat this summary as general guidance only, and we are specifically disclaiming providing tax or legal advice to anyone except James D. Julia, Inc.” Is the buying public to accept “guidance” from somebody paid by and solely representing Julia or will they heed facts and events that have actually taken place?

    Julia’s email ends with a wish that gun collectors will make their own decisions based on fact and reality. We do too. Our article was not an attack. It was a service to collectors who may consider buying from this or other imported collections. Questions remain despite all Julia’s empty assurances.

    Are the guns properly marked? If so, show us the markings for caliber, model, and country.
    Are there consequences to owning improperly marked guns?
    Are improperly marked guns contraband?
    Who exactly will be paying the taxes on these guns? Are you liable?
    On experimental guns without a manufacturer’s serial number, were they assigned a number by the importer? If so, where was it placed? We have not yet been shown. Also, can we be assured that it meets the .003 inch depth and 1/16th inch height required of serial numbers?

    All Rock Island Auction Company has sought in this whole endeavor is to investigate the ins and outs of imported firearms as an important collection was coming to market. Julia has seen fit to take this to an entirely different level. Therefore, we ask the buying public to demand and insist on complete answers and proof to these very pertinent questions. Collectors want peace of mind, privacy, and to keep the government out of their business. Right now none of those is assured. You be the judge. Is all of our talk about import marks just sour grapes or is it necessary information for collectors? Draw your own conclusions. Protect yourself.

    Best of luck to Dr. Sturgess at auction and congratulations on an amazing collection.

    Pat Hogan

    1. Hognose Post author

      Pat, or should I say, Dan,

      thank you for this comment. I think it deserves to be its own post, even though seeing two such well-respected auction houses beating on each other is unseemly.

      As you’re probably aware, ATF has been attacking collectors and FFLs recently for possession or sale of guns which “should” have import marks but don’t. See Bob Adams’s website: http://www.adamsguns.com/dhs.htm and his list of seized items http://www.adamsguns.com/0x.htm

      At least in Adams’s case, no charges appear to have been filed. The purpose seems to have been simply to seize the guns. If they do what they usually do, they will put a forfeiture notice in some out-of-state newspaper and when he doesn’t file a response (because he never saw it in an Ohio or New York newspaper), they’ll bring a forfeiture case against the guns, and seize and destroy them. Lanny Breuer was the one pushing this on the DOJ side.

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  7. Germania

    Mr. Hogan is spot on! These guns are not marked correctly IMO. Excise tax? Who knows where that will end up. I feel like my non import mark collector guns have just gone up in value, while the few import marked guns I have just took a big hit! OUCH! Thanks to Julia and RIA as both put out some great guns for us collectors.

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