Collectors beware – unique historical items raise unique jurisdictional questions

Updated - see below

Minnesota Lawyer (subscription required) recently wrote about a case of mine in Fillmore County to determine the proper ownership of a historically and financially valuable item – a copper printing plate created in 1775 to print the currency for the Colony of New Hampshire. The “1775 John Ward Gilman Copper Printing Plate” was created at the request of the Colony of New Hampshire in June 1775, virtually the eve of the American Revolution. The notes it was used to print are finely decorated and depicts four different denominations – 1, 6, 40 and 20 shillings.

234 years later, the copper printing plate turned up at an estate sale in Spring Valley, Minnesota, where it was purchased by our client. Little is known about where the plate was in the meantime. This alone makes the case an interesting one. After all, these are some of the notes that financed the Revolution and the nation that emerged from it. But another question – and for now, the legally operative one – is jurisdiction. When the client attempted to place the item up for sale at a numismatic auction in 2010, the New Hampshire Attorney General intervened and demanded that the sale be halted. The client sought declaratory relief in Minnesota determining him to be the proper owner of the plate, and New Hampshire contested jurisdiction – a contest which has now been before the trial court several times and to the Minnesota Court of Appeals once.

So which court can declare the proper ownership of the plate? The answer depends (in part) on one’s reading of the federal constitution. In a dispute between a private citizen in Minnesota and the government of another state (New Hampshire) over a valuable item found in Minnesota but with long-ago ties to the Colony of New Hampshire, what court can determine ownership? The question raises issues of federalism with its roots in the debates between Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton over the proper extent of state sovereignty. It also raises a question – somewhat simpler – of fairness: if the plate was found in good faith in Minnesota by a Minnesota citizen, should the New Hampshire state government be able to seize the item (or simply outlast him in litigation), because of its distant connection to the item? New Hampshire’s Concord Monitor has a good account of the early stages of the dispute.

Two years after the auction of the “1775 John Gilman Copper Printing Plate” was halted, it remains disputed whether Minnesota courts have jurisdiction to determine its proper ownership. The copper plate remains in Minnesota, as New Hampshire’s second and third appeals in the case are heard by Minnesota Court of Appeals.


After over two and a half years of litigation, including three appeals (all filed by New Hampshire), we have reached a favorable settlement resolving this case.  The final two appeals (which were decided simultaneously) provided that the Minnesota does have personal jurisidiction over the State of New Hampshire for the purposes of this dispute.  A major factor was the extent to which New Hampshire inserted itself into this case by its actions in August 2010 at the time of the intended auction.  As it turns out, jurisdiction was the whole ballgame, as following that appellate decision, we reached a settlement granting my client uncontested ownership of the Copper Plate, with New Hampshire restrained from asserting any claim against the Copper Plate or interfering in any future transfer of ownership.  In return, we agreed to a pro forma dismissal of our declaratory judgment lawsuit.

The Court of Appeals decisions in this matter can be found here: 

 A11-851 (11/7/2011; denying in rem jurisdiction and remanding to District Court)

A11-1414 & A12-0965 (2/11/2013, unpublished; finding personal jurisdiction but reversing a default judgment granted after the appeal had been filed, and remanding to the District Court)