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Cultural Property, Art and Antiquities Investigations
02/11/2009

Historic antique vehicle returned to France

1919 Turcat-Mery had belonged to descendant of French dynasty

SEATTLE - A rare, antique roadster once owned by the last descendant of the French Bourbon Dynasty and currently owned by a Seattle antique car collector is being returned to the France, following an investigation by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) that revealed the vehicle is a French national treasure.

The customized automobile, a 1919 Turcat-Mery, was owned by the Duc de Montpensier, a descendant of the "Orleans" branch of the Bourbon Dynasty. Starting in the late 16th Century, the Bourbon Dynasty reigned in France for nearly 250 years.

When the Duc de Montpensier died childless in 1924, his wife inherited his royal estate, which included a chateau in Randan, France, and all of his belongings, including the roadster. She later remarried and upon her death in 1958, the estate became the property of her second husband, Alberto de Huarte.

In 1991, the French government classified the royal estate of the Duc de Montpensier a French national treasure since it contained "goods of public historic interest." According to the French Code du Patrimoine, which governs historic monuments, this designation prevented any part of the estate from being permanently exported from France.

At the time of this classification, DeHuarte was residing in Pamplona, Spain. He was advised of and agreed to the terms laid out by the French government relative to the estate. However, in 1997, he sold the antique roadster. In 2004, the car was removed from France and taken to the Netherlands in violation of French law.

In July 2005, Charles Morse, an antique car collector who lives in Seattle, purchased the roadster and had it flown from the Netherlands to Sea-Tac airport near Seattle. On customs entry documents forms, Morse undervalued the vehicle by approximately $600,000.

When ICE learned the roadster was in the United States, it began working closely with officials from the French Customs Service to verify the authenticity of the vehicle. ICE was provided historical photos of the vehicle. In February 2008, ICE agents used these photos to positively identify a serial number and name plate attached below the steering column with the words "Duc de Montpensier" etched in a brass inspection plate.

In late December 2008, the U.S. government filed a civil forfeiture complaint for the vehicle, with the ultimate goal being to return the vehicle to French authorities. As part of the settlement of the civil forfeiture case, the Turcat-Mery will be returned to France and all shipping costs will be paid by Morse.

"This investigation proved that this 1919 roadster is much more than just an antique vehicle," said Leigh Winchell, special agent in charge of ICE's Office of Investigations in Seattle. "It is a historical monument and its removal from France was illegal. ICE will continue to work closely with foreign governments to ensure that a country's heritage is not for sale to the highest bidder."

According to court documents, Morse has agreed to keep the vehicle in France and will explicitly inform any potential buyer that the vehicle must remain in France. If any of the terms of this agreement are violated, Morse will forfeit the vehicle, or the value of the vehicle to the U.S. government. The value of the Turcat-Mery is estimated at nearly $1 million.

ICE was joined in this investigation by the Port of Seattle Police Department, the ICE attaché in Paris and the French Customs Service. U.S. Customs and Border Protection assisted ICE in the case. The case was prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard Cohen.