Thursday, February 28, 2008

China complains about U.S. role in antiquities trade

The Chinese government has publically reprimanded the U.S. about its role in the market for antiquities. This is a good opportunity to give a brief primer on the antiquities market and how it is "regulated." (Quotes added for good reason).

Most countries have restrictions on exporting items of cultural significance, defined differently everywhere, but generally speaking including art objects and artifacts from the past. In some cases, this can be done but only after getting approval from the government in question, in others, it is effectively impossible.

Countries like the United States, who historically have been net importers of art objects (and where, for example, the sale of Native American artifacts abroad was not a major concern until recently) tend to have weaker laws on the export and import of objects. And therein lies the rub. Just because it's illegal to export an object from, say, Malaysia, doesn't mean it's illegal to import that object into the United States. The U.S. in general doesn't undertake to enforce the laws of other countries. There is international law on the subject, most notably the 1970 UNESCO Convention, which seeks to import the sale of stolen cultural objects, but that Convention only has force in the U.S. when put into effect an enabling law. Such is the 1983 Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act.

Under that act, countries can negotiate import restrictions with the U.S. Part of the problem has to do with the qualifier "stolen." It is often difficult to prove that an object was taken illegally out of a given country (under U.S. law, it's incumbent on the plaintiff to prove the object was stolen, not on the defendant to prove the object wasn't stolen). If I purchase a Greek vase on the open market, it might have come from Greece or Italy, and so neither country really has grounds to challenge the sale.

Now, under the 1983 act a country can briefly close down trade in certain kinds of artifacts if it can show that there is an acute and ongoing looting problem within its borders. However, that is only a temporary measure. A nation can also negotiate a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the U.S. that seeks to regulate trade in certain artifacts. That is what China is seeking with the U.S., and which many museums and art collectors are opposing. Even if a MOU is negotiated, not all is well as some kinds of objects (particularly coins) are often exempted and thus freely importable. A recent hotly-debated amendment to the MOU with Cyprus added coins to the prohibited list, after much acrimony. But that is an exception.


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