NPR Story on the Antiquities Trade (UPDATE)

Morning Edition on NPR has what looks to be a promising story on the antiquities trade. It will be available later today here.


The first of the two part stories which aired on Monday was excellent. It does a great job of laying out the issues with the antiquities trade in ~8 minutes. The view was expressed that Guatemala needs to enact stricter laws to protect their antiquities. That is often the first response someone gets when presented with the theft and destruction of archaeological sites. However Guatemala has some very aggressive legislation. The problem isn’t the laws, its the enforcement. Today’s second part should be excellent as well, as it will detail the art market, the other side of the coin.

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Largest Historical Shipwreck

Recently, Odyssey Marine Exploration announced they had recovered 500,000 silver and gold coins from a shipwreck which may have been 40 miles from Land’s End in Cornwall. It may be a record for the The BBC has a story here and video here. The Daily Mail has a story here. Odyssey have not released the location of the wreck for security and legal reasons. The treasure has been stored in an “undisclosed location” in the US. The value of the coins recovered could approach half a billion dollars.

Odyssey stresses it is the legal owner of the coins, and that it conducted the salvage by “diligently follow[ing] archaeological protocols using advanced robotic technology, and the artifacts are now undergoing a meticulous conservation process”. I’ll confess a profound ignorance of how much archaeologists can learn from shipwrecks. However Will Anderson over at the assemblage expresses some well-founded skepticism about the archaeological merits of the salvage, “Whether what Odyssey Marine Exploration does can be termed archaeology is debatable”. And in response to claims that the archaeological protocols were followed, “So we shall soon be seeing a full and thorough excavation report published, the site will be assessed and managed, and the loot will not be flogged over the internet”? Chances of that seem unlikely, as Odyssey has already sold coal from another shipwreck, the SS Republic.

Peter Spiro over at Opinio Juris summarizes the current state of shipwreck recovery law in International waters, and ties in the difficulties with regulation of underwater cultural heritage to a new book by Dan Drezner. Drezner postulates a “club standards” situation where there is low conflict among great powers and high conflict between the great powers and other actors. Spiro says “that seems to be what has emerged in the context of treasure hunting, with the great powers reaching ad hoc agreements on particular finds (as was the case with the Titanic), at the same time as they also handle the issue through domestic law. The universalizing option of an open-to-all multilateral treaty gets left by the wayside”.

That brings us to the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage. JH Merryman has been a very vocal critic of the Convention, because it completely precludes commercial exploitation, as was the case here. 14 Nations have signed on. The convention has received little support from most European nations and the United States. Here is an excellent overview of the Convention from Robert Blumberg, who led the US delegation to the UNESCO negotiations. As it stands now, there is no comprehensive law regulating wrecks found in International waters, which begins 24 miles out to sea. Regulation which does exist comes about through multilateral agreements for individual wrecks and bilateral agreements, or domestic legislation.

Clearly, this record recovery will anger some nations, and may provide some new impetus towards forming a workable convention for maritime states, perhaps by amending the UNESCO UCH convention.

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Orkin v. Taylor

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld a lower-court ruling denying an attempt by the descendants of a Jewish art collector. They sought to to recover this work, Vue de l’Asile et de la Chapelle de Saint-Rémy by Vincent Van Gogh. Elizabeth Taylor bought the work at an auction in 1963 for $260,000. It may fetch up to $15 million at an auction today. The opinion is here. The San Francisco Chronicle has a summary here.

Van Gogh painted the work in 1889 after entering an asylum in Provence. This was only 1 year before he committed suicide. Margarete Mauthner purchased the work in 1907, but left the painting behind when she fled Berlin and went to South Africa in 1939. Mauthner’s four descendants claimed she sold the work under duress in 1939.

Both parties “vigorously dispute[d] the circumstances under which Mauthner parted with the painting”. This suit really highlights the phrase often uttered with respect to art litigation: a tale of two innocents. Neither party seems to be in the wrong here.

The claimants argued that Mauthner sold the painting under duress, not that the Nazis confiscated it. They brought suit against Taylor, however that claim was thrown out under a 12(b)(6) motion. The district court essentially found that the claimants did not bring a legally recognizable claim. This appeal centered on whether the Holocaust Victims Redress Act created a private right of action, and whether the action was timely.

The Holocaust Victims Redress Act did not create a right of action according to the 9th Circuit. The “Act was a limited bill, passed with an understanding of constitutional limitations on congressional power.”

With respect to the timeliness of the action, the court held the action was time-barred as well. California has adopted the “discovery rule”. An action for the recovery of art accrues when the rightful owner discovers the location of the work. However, the California Supreme Court has held that the discovery rule incorporates a requirement which accrues the action when the claimant “reasonably could have discovered” the claim. At the very least, the claim could have been discovered in 1990, when Taylor attempted to auction the painting at Sotheby’s. She was also listed as the owner of the painting in a 1970 catalogue. Thus the Federal cause of action was inapplicable, and the State claim was time-barred.

Most commentators have agreed this was the right decision. Working against the claimants was the fact that painting was not actually seized by the Nazis, even though the court was interpreting the District Court’s ruling in a light most favorable to the plaintiffs. It would have been a difficult case to win on the merits, and would have taken Nazi restitution litigation a step too far in my view. I wonder how exactly the claimants learned of the work and their possible claim. The court didn’t really analyze in much detail what the claimants should have done, but did note the various points that Taylor publicized her ownership.

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Internet Radio

One of the best things about the internet is the way we can listen to any musical genre . Net radio allows us to enjoy and discover new music in a way that corporate-controlled radio never will.

However, the Copyright Royalty Board, in its infinite wisdom, has decided to dramatically increase the royalties net radio sites must pay to SoundExchange. The net result will be more use of peer-to-peer networks, and less “legal” access to new music. Though this increase purports to help compensate artists, that is simply not the case.

In March, the CRB increased the royalty rates to 7/100 of a penny per user who listened to each song. Bafflingly, these rate increases are retroactive to 2006.

This is a dramatic increase from the small hourly rate required previously. Setting aside how exactly we can determine listenership, this increase is sure to shut down many streaming radio stations. It seems that the increase money which will make it to artist will only be hundreds of dollars per year, hardly worth the price of shutting down the streaming stations.

Congress can still step in and prevent or amend the increase. To learn more visit

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The Cultural Property Advisory Committee

The Museum Security Network mailing list today circulated a really fascinating blog entry by Gary Vikan from last month. Vikan was discussing a NY Times article on the Cultural Property Advisory Committee. It’s a State Department body which recommends whether the US should adopt import restrictions on certain classes of objects. It’s the way the US chose to implement the 1970 UNESCO Convention.

Here’s a link to the NY Times article, Is the US Protecting Foreign Artifacts? Don’t Ask. You can access it via the timesselect service, which is free to academics and students. `

Here’s a link to Gary Vikan’s post. Of particular interest are some of the comments after the post.

Here’s an excerpt of what Vikan had to say:

The work of CPAC, which was created in 1983 by legislation intended to give effect to ratification of the UNESCO Convention on cultural property (1970), is to make recommendations to the State Department on applications from foreign nations asking, in effect, that their export laws governing cultural property become our import laws. From its inception, the committee’s activities have been highly secretive; in recent years, its internal deliberations have become increasingly contentious, as the archaeologists’ voice has come to dominate the collectors and dealers on the committee.

The hot issue now is whether the State Department will accept, on CPAC’s recommendation, a sweeping ban on the import of Chinese art and artifacts predating 1911. (The often-repeated counterarguments are that the Chinese have yet to clean up their own art-dealing house and that the share of the Chinese trade is relatively small, and will simply go elsewhere.)

The points made by Kahn, and through him, by his many sources on and off the committee, including its present chair, Jay Kislak, are right on the mark. The archaeologists’ voice and values are disproportionately strong among the CPAC membership, and its activities are overly secretive and exclusionary.

Vikan’s perspective is very enlightening, as he served on the CPAC from 2000-2003, and resigned after the looting of the National Museum of Iraq. Both links are essential reading if you are interested in cultural policy or the protection of antiquities.

Much of this controversy centers around China. China may be one of the most important source nations for antiquities. Two aspects make it unique. First, as John Henry Merryman says “China, with its many centuries of high civilization and its vast area and large population, may be the richest source of cultural property of all.” Second, China has used some unique regulatory techniques, including a ratings system for antiquities and a state right of purchase, which might both prove useful if implemented properly. Unfortunately, China’s current legal framework does a poor job of preserving antiquities and their accompanying archaeological context, as antiquities may be the single most valuable commodity smuggled out of the country.

Without regard to the reasons given for the panel’s secrecy, from an academics perspective it is indeed frustrating that we can’t have a clearer picture of how the advisory committee reaches its decisions. However, all 11 requests for import restrictions have been granted. Whether that will continue for China and Cypress remains to be seen. The importance of the committee internationally should not be underestimated, as the US by most accounts is considered the largest importer of art and antiquities.

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International Law and Trade Conference in Istanbul

Last week I had the good fortune to present my work at the ILTC Conference in Istanbul. The title of my talk was “New Strategies for Source and Market Regulation of the International Trade in Cultural Property”. It went well, and we really enjoyed our time in Istanbul, the highlight of which was a dinner cruise on the Bosphorus. Here’s a quick summary of my presentation, in which I talked about the suitability of increased criminal penalties, antiquities leasing, and electronic databases as tools for decreasing the illicit trade:

Cultural property has a universal appeal. Objects of artistic, cultural, archaeological, and historical importance are rapidly escalating in price. As demand for these cultural items increases, the theft and looting of cultural property escalates as well. A number of legal measures have been created to attempt to limit the illicit market in cultural property. With notable exceptions, these restrictions have proved largely unsuccessful in limiting the trade in illicit cultural property, which has been estimated as the third largest black market behind illegal narcotics and firearms. Regulation of the illicit trade in cultural property has been difficult for two reasons. First, many of the current regulatory measures, such as export controls and national patrimony laws, have the unintended consequence of increasing demand for these objects on the black market. Second, the flow of cultural items is international. Many of the World’s most important and historic antiquities are located in the developing world. This international character requires an international regulatory framework. It requires the cooperation of authorities from the industrialized and the developed world. Regrettably, effective cooperation has not yet taken place.

Nearly every nation, especially those rich in art and antiquities, has some form of restriction on the transfer of cultural property. The restrictions at the source of these objects take various forms, and include: export restrictions, a pre-emptive right to buy some objects, or a declaration of national ownership. The United States and the UK have both recently affirmed the notion that their criminal justice system will recognize as stolen objects taken in contravention of a national ownership declaration. This stands as an important step, but only marks the very pinnacle of the regulatory framework, intended only for the most egregious transgressions.

A truly effective regulatory scheme must work in concert with the art and antiquities trade to push the movement of cultural items, and the profits derived from their sale, in beneficial directions. To accomplish this end, I advocate a strong and vibrant arts and antiquities market. However it must be closely regulated to prevent illicit transactions. To accomplish this, I propose a system of regulation and investment which would require arts and antiquities transactions to be conducted openly, with records of transactions, provenance, find-spots, and export permits. Regardless of the other intricate regulatory frameworks we might endorse, the illicit trade will almost certainly continue to flourish without a fundamental shift in the way art and antiquities are bought and sold.

In recent years, the cultural property debate has focused on the extent to which the criminal law can impact the illicit trade. This has unfortunately shifted the discussion away from cultural property policy. Museum curators are forced to acquire objects, not based on their artistic or historical value, but rather on the criminal advice of their counsel. Connoisseur ship has been displaced by other considerations. We should be looking at how best to safeguard archaeological sites, museums, and other historic sites to prevent theft and destruction. A criminal response, in isolation, can never hope to achieve success without overwhelming law enforcement resources or draconian legal measures.

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Getty Panel Convened over the "Cult Statue of a Goddess"

The Conference at the Getty Museum which was convened to study the “Cult Statue of a Goddess”, probably of Aphrodite, took place last week. I discussed this before here. The NY Times discussed it last week here. Lee Rosenbaum gives her take here.

As I’ve said, scientific study is welcome, however the dysfunctional antiquities market gave us a situation where we have a very beautiful Greek statue but are unsure about where it came from. The Getty has already agreed to return the statute, but has taken 1 year to study it.

Sharon Waxman wrote in the NY Times: The Getty has not reached a formal conclusion based on the conference, which was convened at the museum on Wednesday and was closed to the public. But museum officials and some of the experts who attended said their discussions buttressed what the museum says are its own suspicions that the statue, acquired by the Getty in 1988, might have been illegally excavated in southern Italy.

So the panel has suspicions that the statue came from Sicily, but no clear evidence. Clearly the Getty has dramatically shifted the way it acquires antiquities. Since last October it has used 1970 and the UNESCO Convention as a starting date for new acquisitions. The Getty does not appear to be contributing to the illicit trade at present, and that may be the most welcome development. It will be interesting to guage Italy’s response in the coming months.

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An Ancient City with Modern Problems

On Sunday the BBC had an interesting article with video of Rome’s struggle to maintain Roman monuments, excavate them, and preserve them; all while other more pressing contemporary budgetary matters take priority. Tourism does stem from historical sites as the piece points out. I wonder how much of Italy’s recent efforts to repatriate objects may stem from the fact that there have been budget cuts in other sectors? Not sure about that, I’m just speculating. If anyone may know of any data along those lines, I would be interested to hear it. Does Italy have a double standard? Is it arguing too vehemently against collectors abroad as a way to shift attention from the difficult problems of preservation and protection domestically? Even Francesco Rutelli was critical of the difficulties in development in Rome while he was mayor there.

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No Posting This Week

No posting until next week. We’ll be in Istanbul for the next five days at the International Law and Trade Conference. It should be a good time. I’ll be giving a short talk on my research, and talking about some of the new ideas which have been floated as alternatives to export restrictions in source nations. I’ll post my notes here when I get back.

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Jeff Tweedy of Wilco

Pitchfork has an excellent interview with Jeff Tweedy of the band Wilco today. I usually talk about art and antiquities here, but many of the issues which give rise to controversy in the traditional art mediums are present with respect to music as well. The law often struggles to allay the tension between compensating creators and allowing the public to appreciate those creations. In this excerpt Tweedy talks about how the band gives away much of its music.

Pitchfork: Let me ask you about the listening party you set up for Sky Blue Sky, where you streamed it from the website. It’s not surprise considering Wilco have always been at the forefront of sharing music online. You streamed Yankee Hotel for a while, and then you did that thing with Doctors Without Borders when A Ghost Is Born came out.

Jeff Tweedy: Fans did, I wouldn’t want to take credit for that.

Pitchfork: You stirred the idea a bit at the beginning though, right?

Jeff Tweedy: The idea initially came to us that they wanted to give us some money as an act of good faith because they were downloading the record. We said, “Well we can’t really do that. We can’t take money; it would be against our contract. We wouldn’t feel right about doing that. But if you really want to do something here’s a charity that we really believe in.” So they set it up after that.

Pitchfork: How much did you end up raising?

Jeff Tweedy: I think $15,000.

Pitchfork: That’s pretty great. So few artists are willing to think of new models, you know?

Jeff Tweedy: Yeah I just think it’s pretty simple for us. The whole experience with Yankee Hotel Foxtrot validated a lot of ideas we’ve had. It’s not necessarily to make a piece of plastic we have to sell every two or three years. We would love to be able to think that we could do it even if we didn’t have a record deal, which we proved to ourselves that we could. We liked the idea of people listening to our music. I guess the simplest way of saying it is that I don’t think that artists should expend any energy keeping people from listening or seeing or hearing or reading their art. I think that’s antithetical to the whole principle of being an artist.

Pitchfork: When you put up the new one, it only streamed for a little while. Is there any element of hitting the fans before the leak does and trying to head people off at the pass?

Jeff Tweedy: No because, we basically resign ourselves to the idea that when the record label starts sending out promo copies of the record it’s out. And very shortly after that, almost anybody who want’s it would be able to get it if you wanted it, if you’re technically savvy enough to figure out a way to get it– even from our stream. There’s a lot of things that we still have faith in. I still have a lot of faith that there’s very few people who are savvy enough to actually produce a good sounding copy of the record. I also believe that in general there is no good sounding copy of the record other than the vinyl. I think that vinyl versions of the last few records are far superior. This one in particular I think is going to sound great on vinyl. Other than that I think its not necessarily heading people off at the pass. I think that it’s good for us to have people listen to our music.

Pitchfork: Why do you suppose there aren’t more high-profile bands or artists actually coming out and saying that downloads aren’t the end of the world?

Jeff Tweedy: I don’t have any idea. Fear? Greed? I don’t know. Those would be the two principle ideas that I think that would be at work there. I have fear. I have fear as a businessman that it could somehow impact my ability to take care of my family. But I don’t think that fear should be catered to above the idea that I made music because I wanted people to listen to it. I think it’s really tough for people to make that leap of faith. In particular, when they have a lot of people depending on them or they have a lot of bills to pay. You know, construction efforts underway for a second pool or whatever. In the long run the thing that no one will be able to download is a live music experience. But I also think that there’s a lot of good will that exists between musicians and the people that support them and listen to them. And when they’re treated well, I still believe that most people want to do the right thing. Not everybody has a lot of money, so I think that I want people to be able to hear it. I think it would be nice if they paid us back for it. That would be great. It’s always going to be a better situation for us if somebody cares enough to listen.

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