Brown University wants a Virginia couple to return a Civil War-era sword, but their lawyer says the school lacks proof of ownership and its claim has expired.

Alan Silber, who represents Donald R. and Toni M. Tharpe of Williamsburg, Va., has asked a federal judge to toss the lawsuit by the Rhode Island Ivy League school seeking to get back the saber and scabbard allegedly taken from its collection in the 1970s, The Providence Journal reported Tuesday.

Not only can't Brown prove it owns the historical artifacts, Silber says, and the statute of limitations has run out on the school's claim. He further alleges there was an earlier effort on the part of the university to retrieve what it believed to be the same sword from an Illinois collector that was not pursued.

Col. Rush C. Hawkins received the presentation sword and scabbard in the 1860s in recognition of his service in forming the 9th New York City Volunteers regiment that served in the Union Army during the Civil War. Hawkins subsequently donated the Tiffany-silver sword to the university's Annmary Brown Memorial Collection in 1907.

The sword vanished from the collection but the school says it turned up on display last December at the municipal Lee Hall Mansion in Newport News, Va., on loan from a collection of the Tharpes.

Brown's attorneys have until March 31 to respond to Silber's motion to dismiss. The city of Newport News is also a defendant.

Senior U.S. District Judge Robert G. Doumar has ordered the sword placed in an art-storage facility in New York City pending a trial scheduled for Sept. 7.