China’s request for import restrictions of certain classes of China’s antiquities has finally been granted. The Memorandum of Understanding is here, while the State Department Press Release is here. Now prohibited, unless accompanied by a Chinese export license will be “archaeological material originating in China and representing China’s cultural heritage from the Paleolithic Period through the end of the Tang Dynasty (A.D. 907), and of monumental sculpture and wall art at least 250 years old; including categories of metal, ceramic, stone, textiles, other organic material, glass, and painting”.
Randy Kennedy has an overview for the New York Times. Professor Patty Gerstenblith thinks the decision “is a very appropriate way for the State Department to have applied the statute and the statutory requirements to China’s request”.
James Lally, a New York dealer in Asian art was not quite as impressed, “It’s going to have a terrible effect on efforts to encourage new students to study Asian art and on collectors and patrons to become involved in the field … They’ll say, ‘Well, I’ll just go to contemporary art or I’ll support the symphony.’ It sends the wrong signal.”
Peter Tompa has a thoughtful criticism on his blog as well,
I would, however, echo [other’s] concerns about fair enforcement, particularly when it comes to coins. Indeed, many Chinese coins of the types covered under the agreement have so little monetary value that it makes little sense for importers to go through the time and effort to secure the necessary certifications for licit import. For example, at the CPAC hearing in February 2005, I passed around a Han Dynasty cash coin from the 1st c. BC (bought for $2.25) and a Tang Dynasty cash coin c. 618-907 AD (bought for $8.00).
Such a problem presents some very difficult regulatory challenges, and goes I think to the heart of how we define cultural heritage or property. I don’t envy the task of ICE agents, who are now charged with making sure these very small objects are not imported into the US.
China has created a large heritage bureaucracy which does allow the purchase and sale of antiquities, but the government has right of first refusal for all of these objects. There is also a complicated ratings system, overseen by a government official in relics shops, which determines what is too important to sell, and what is not. The system has been criticized for its potential for abuse, though what heritage policy in any nation isn’t.