Asif Efrat on International Antiquities Law

In 1970 UNESCO adopted a convention intended to stem the flow of looted antiquities from developing countries to collections in art-importing countries. The majority of art-importing countries, including Britain, Germany, and Japan, refused to join the Convention. Contrary to other art-importing countries, and reversing its own traditionally-liberal policy, the United States accepted the international regulation of antiquities and joined the UNESCO Convention. The article seeks to explain why the United States chose to establish controls on antiquities, to the benefit of foreign countries facing archaeological plunder and to the detriment of the US art market. I argue that the concern of US policymakers about looting abroad resulted from a series of scandals which exposed the involvement of American museums and collectors with looted material. Advocacy efforts of American archaeologists also played a key role in educating policymakers about the loss of historical knowledge caused by looting and the necessity of regulation. The article further analyzes how antiquities dealers and certain museums lobbied Congress against implementing the UNESCO Convention and why Congress decided in favor of implementation as an act of international moral leadership. Following the analysis of the Congressional battle, I examine how the US debate over looted antiquities has evolved to the present. The article concludes with implications for the role of values versus interests in international law.

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