Provenance, the ownership history of an artifact or work of art, has become one of the primary mechanisms for determining the legal status and authenticity of a cultural object. Professional associations, including museum organizations, have adopted the “1970 standard” as a means to prevent the acquisition of an ancient object from promoting the looting of archaeological sites, which is driven by the economic gains realized through the international market. The Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), one of the museum world’s most influential professional organizations, requires its members to list the ancient artworks and artifacts that they have acquired after 2008 that do not conform to the 1970 standard in an online object registry. The study presented here of the AAMD’s Object Registry for New Acquisitions of Archaeological Material and Works of Ancient Art analyzes the extent to which AAMD member museums do not comply with the 1970 standard and, perhaps of greater significance, the weaknesses in the provenance information on which they rely in acquiring such works. I argue that systematic recurrences of inadequate provenance certitude are symptomatic of the larger problem of methodology and standards of evidence in claiming documented provenance. A museum’s acceptance of possibly unverifiable provenance documentation and, therefore, its acquisition of an object that may have been recently looted, in turn, impose a negative externality on society through the loss of information about our past caused by the looting of archaeological sites.
Gerstenblith, P. (2019). Provenances: Real, Fake, and Questionable. International Journal of Cultural Property,26(3), 285-304. doi:10.1017/S0940739119000171
Last March I participated in Cardozo’s Arts and Entertainment Law Journal Spring Symposium on the topic of Digital Art & Blockchain. I learned a lot about this new technology, and wrote a bit about how Blockchain can impact the antiquities trade. Here’s the abstract to my essay:
Blockchain, the technology underpinning Bitcoin and other digital currencies, offers promise to shift the gathering and sharing of information in profound ways. It could help form a new kind of financial system that limits current inefficiencies, or even radically change how parties enter into contract, or monitor supply chains. The technology’s distributed ledger allows users in a network to monitor and access peer-to-peer digital transactions in real time. This digital ledger allows users to maintain this information securely by encrypting and allowing access only to those who have permission, given by cryptographic keys.
For the art market, blockchain offers a tantalizing possibility: a verifiable provenance research platform that would eliminate or minimize the problems with title history, authenticity, and looting, which have long-plagued the art and antiquities market. This essay examines whether blockchain might offer a chance for the antiquities market to remedy its persistent problems. The antiquities market has been beleaguered by the sale of forgeries, allowed stolen material to find a market, been hampered by market inefficiencies, and even been a haven for looted archaeological material. Distributed ledgers and blockchain could alleviate or eliminate these problems, but only if the market and those who shape it want to utilize them. No technology, no matter how ingenious or elegant, can end problems caused by the unprincipled actors in the antiquities trade. Such change has to come about with a culture shift and continued pressure by regulators and cultural heritage advocates.
Guy Rub (Ohio State University, Michael E. Moritz College of Law) has posted an article from a symposium issue of the Kentucky Law Journal on: Experimenting with State-Enacted Resale Rights.
Current federal law does not require sellers of fine art to pay a share of the sale price to the artists, although Congress and federal agencies have been debating the advantages and disadvantages of such a duty, commonly referred to as Artists’ Resale Rights (ARR), since the 1970s. What is often missing from this discourse is the role that state law might play in this ecosystem. This issue, and especially California’s 1976 ARR law, the only state-enacted ARR to date, is the focus of this Article.
States are often said to be the laboratories of democracy as they can experiment with various legal rules and produce rich comparative empirical data. The Article explores whether states can be the laboratories of ARR as well. It reaches three conclusions: First, there is a vibrant debate concerning the impacts and overall desirability of resale royalties, but that debate is driven by relatively scarce empirical data. Second, if states decide to adopt ARR they can provide some of that missing information. Third, subject to minor restrictions, states are allowed to enact ARR legislation, and the recent Ninth Circuit decisions that held the California ARR act unconstitutional are, for the most part, misguided, as it does not fully recognize the important role that states play in the markets for creative goods.
Alix Rogers (Stanford Law School fellow, and PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge) has posted an article titled “Owning Geronimo but Not Elmer McCurdy: The Unique Property Status of Native American Remains” on SSRN.
This article unifies two areas of property scholarship that have not historically intersected. In the field of biotechnology and the law, it is generally understood that human remains and many body parts are not objects of legal property. This general rule has a startling exception, which heretofore has gone unnoticed in the literature and relevant case law. The bodily remains of Native Americans were, and I argue, continue to be, objects of legal property.
With the passage of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 (NAGPRA) Native American remains are classified as familial and tribal property. The distinction and significance of property status under NAGPRA has been overlooked in the Native American legal scholarship. The perpetuation of property status is surprising given that NAGPRA was passed to address the systematic disrespect for Native American burial grounds and commercialization of Native American remains. Property status is all the more striking and important because some federal circuits have also interpreted NAGPRA to apply to contemporary individuals with Native American ancestry. With the rise of genetic testing technologies, application of this property rule takes on some surprising implications.
At first glance, we might condemn the property status of Native American remains as continued evidence of dehumanization. Property is traditionally associated with rights of alienability, exclusion, commensurability, and commodification. The understanding of property in Native American human remains advocated for in this paper challenges classic property constructs of wealth-maximization and an individually centered right of exclusion. Instead, after re-considering the paradigm of property, I argue that the communal property approach embodied by the Act enables Native Americans to more effectively protect their dead compared to any other American group. NAGPRA, therefore, represents an intriguing pathway for human biological materials regulation reform more broadly.
Museums are home to millions of artworks and cultural artifacts, some of which have made their way to these institutions through unjust means. Some argue that these objects should be repatriated (i.e., returned to their country, culture, or owner of origin). However, these arguments face a series of philosophical challenges. In particular, repatriation, even if justified, is often portrayed as contrary to the aims and values of museums. However, in this paper, I argue that some of the very considerations museums appeal to in order to oppose repatriation claims can be turned on their heads and marshaled in favor of the practice. In addition to defending against objections to repatriation, this argument yields the surprising conclusion that the redistribution of cultural goods should be much more radical than is typically supposed.
An interesting argument, and it sounds to me like he is making a case for cultural justice.
Sonia Katyal, Professor of Law at University of California Berkeley has authored a fascinating new article titled, Technoheritage in Volume 105 of the California Law Review. She engages with some of the interesting overlap between cultural property and intellectual property along with the physical and the digital.
Here’s the abstract:
This Article explores the legal revolution that is swiftly unfolding regarding the relationship between technology, user interactivity, and cultural institutions, both inside and outside of the law. At the same time that cultural properties are facing destruction from war and environmental change, we are also living in an age of unprecedented interactivity and reproduction—everywhere, museums are offering their collections for open access, 3-D printing, and new projects involving virtual and augmented reality. With the advent of other sophisticated forms of digital technology, the preservation and replication of antiquities have never been easier.
Today’s archaeological moment demonstrates both the possibilities and limitations behind “technoheritage”—the marriage of technology and cultural heritage. Toward that end, this Article argues that, in order to understand the relationship between technology and cultural heritage, it might be helpful to study the theoretical dimensions behind interactivity itself. Just as technology has the power to preserve and protect ancient artifacts, it also invites a dizzying array of legal conflicts over their digitization and replication, particularly with regards to the intersection of copyright law with cultural identity. Unpacking this further, this Article offers a tripartite taxonomy of interactivity: the first, described as extractive (drawing upon the accumulation and selection of data); the second, immersive (drawing upon new forms of user participation through virtual and augmented reality); and the third, derivative (drawing upon new possibilities of user creation). Normatively, I argue that these models of interactivity provide us with an important framework with which to examine the importance of copyright protection for cultural heritage. In the concluding section, I suggest a potential way of rethinking the museum by drawing on the logic and legal protection extended to databases and archives in an age of unprecedented user interactivity.
Sara Ross, a Ph.D. candidate at Osgoode Hall Law has published an article in the American Indian Law Journal titled: “Res Extra Commercium and the Barriers Faced When Seeking the Repatriation and Return of Potent Cultural Objects: A Transsystemic Critical Post-Colonial Approach”. From the abstract:
The repatriation and return of objects of cultural value are often linked to decolonization projects and efforts to repair past wrongs suffered as a result of colonialism. Yet significant barriers hinder these efforts. These barriers primarily take the shape of time limitations, diverging conceptions of property and ownership, the high costs involved, and the domestic export and cultural heritage laws of both the source country and the destination country. I argue that these barriers are relics of colonialism that replicate and perpetuate the continued imposition of Eurocentric and Western legal notions and values on subaltern source countries and source indigenous groups. In order to truly move beyond the remaining relics of colonialism into a context where the culture and values of all groups are accorded equal respect, it is important that these barriers be removed.
The Spring issue of the Northwestern Journal of Technology and Intellectual Property has published an interesting student note by Jaya Bajaj titled “Art, Copyright, and Activism: Could the Intersection of Environmental Art and Copyright Law Provide a New Avenue for Activists to protest Various Forms of Exploitation?” The piece works best as a thought experiment, and may be an argument used by the many detractors of moral rights for artists to further restrict the expansion of the still-developing series of rights for artists. But I find the article, and the experimental protest to be thoughtful and well-reasoned. Here’s the abstract:
In 2015, a group of activists led by Aviva Rahmani began an artistic venture known as “Blued Trees.” They painted blue sine waves onto trees along a proposed pipeline pathway, and subsequently filed for federal copyright registration. They hoped to use copyright law and the Visual Artists Rights Act as a sword against fossil fuel companies. Although the piece was destroyed later that year as part of the pipeline construction, the “Blued Trees” movement continues. This note will discuss Rahmani’s legal theory and consider this theory’s strengths and weaknesses. This experimental protest brings forth a number of unanswered questions about the nature of copyright law. It is no secret that contemporary art forms, and the mediums involved, are becoming increasingly diverse. Therefore, this note also seeks to address the merits and limitations of current copyright law in terms of environmental and installation art.
The new issue of the International Journal of Cultural Property is available now, with contributions discussing deaccession, the status of fauna as cultural property, the role Sotheby’s has played in the collection of Maya antiquities, the fascinating case of the Buddhist Mummy, and other contributions. Here is the table of contents with abstracts:
Mann, D. (2017). To Have and To Hold … Or Not? Deaccessioning Policies, Practices, and the Question of the Public’s Interest. International Journal of Cultural Property,24(2), 113-159. doi:10.1017/S0940739117000091
Shockwaves echoed through the media and the arts community when the Delaware Art Museum chose to deaccession pieces from its collection and when the public learned that the Detroit Institute of Arts might be forced to do the same. Further concern arose when financial troubles compelled the Corcoran Gallery of Art to merge with the National Gallery of Art and George Washington University. An examination of the climate and legal battles surrounding these events shows how these institutions chose to cope with the financial adversity that put their collections at risk and illustrates the precarious position of works in a museum’s collection when that museum experiences financial distress. This article explores the ethical, judicial, and legislative frameworks currently governing deaccessioning and ultimately advocates for new legislative solutions to guide the deaccession process in order to provide the opportunity to maintain these works in the public sphere.
Cathay Smith (Asst. Prof. at Montana School of Law) has published an article in the St. John’s Law Review, Community Rights to Public Art. The article surely would have generated the attention of the student editors of the St. John’s Law Review, as the 5 Pointz building, until it was demolished in 2014, was located just a few miles away from the St. John’s campus. From the abstract:
In 1932, the Rockefeller family commissioned Diego Rivera to paint an enormous mural as the centerpiece of the RCA Building lobby in Rockefeller Center in New York City. The colorful mural that Rivera painted, titled Man at the Crossroads, included images of social, political, industrial, and scientific visions of contemporary society. One night in February of 1934, the Rockefellers hired workers to chisel the mural off the wall without any warning or notice. The mural was broken into pieces before being carted away and dumped. The destruction of his mural shocked Rivera. More importantly, however, the destruction of Rivera’s mural permanently deprived the public of a significant work of public art and heritage. The public was stunned at the destruction of the mural; protesters called the Rockefellers’ act “art murder” and “cultural vandalism.” Nevertheless, the mural was the Rockefeller’s property and, despite public support for the mural, they had the legal right to destroy it. More than eight decades later, communities still face this type of loss of heritage through the destruction of public art. For instance, public outrage followed the 2014 demolition of 5 Pointz in New York, when the owner of 5 Pointz whitewashed and destroyed the 20-plus-year-old “graffiti Mecca” to make way for two new $400 million luxury high-rise apartment towers. On the opposite coast, just last year, Piedmont Avenue neighbors in Oakland were shocked when the owner of Kronnerburger Restaurant demolished a beloved community mural in connection with its construction of a new trendy burger restaurant.
Property owners generally have the right to destroy their own property. This Article argues, however, that certain property is so connected to a community’s identity that the community’s right to preserve its heritage may trump a property owner’s right to destroy. This Article explores existing, yet underutilized, legal solutions a community may use or adapt to preserve public art when that art has become a part of its cultural heritage. Finally, recognizing that preservation has its limits, and that without destruction there will be no space for creation, this Article ultimately sets forth questions communities will need to grapple with as they weigh whether and how to protect works of public art as cultural heritage.