Comment on Pragmatic Reform in the Antiquities Trade

The 900-year-old bronze Dancing Shiva (Shiva Nataraja)  returned by the National Gallery of Australia to India in 2014
The 900-year-old bronze Dancing Shiva (Shiva Nataraja) returned by the National Gallery of Australia to India in 2014

Cornelius Banta, Jr. a recent graduate of the University of Houston Law Center has written an interesting piece in the Houston Law Review putting forth some pragmatic reforms to the antiquities trade. From the abstract:

The debate over the trade in antiquities generally pits archaeologists and antiquities-rich nations (cultural nationalists) against museums, art dealers, and private collectors (cultural internationalists). The former alleges that the latter’s lusting after antiquities perpetuates a black market that threatens the archaeological record and undermines the sovereignty of source nations. Conversely, cultural internationalists assert that policies favoring cultural nationalists stifle the free exchange of artifacts that belong to mankind as a whole, not just a select group of scholars and countries. The problem is that both sides are so intent on pointing the finger at each other that they fail to realize cooperation could produce a mutually beneficial outcome. The solution lies in changing the current adversarial debate into a cooperative dialogue where each side gives a little in order to ensure both sides gain more in the end.

This Comment attempts to break through the polarization in the debate over the trade in antiquities by stressing the shared interests of both sides and advocating pragmatic reforms. The current debate is first viewed through an intellectual framework, where the interests of cultural nationalists, who want to protect antiquities, runs up against cultural internationalists, who advocate for the free movement of antiquities. With the theoretical framework set, one can then analyze the debate through the current legal approaches towards regulating the antiquities market. The United States’ blend of criminal prosecutions and trade restrictions is illustrative of present efforts to control the antiquities trade. Yet despite the ineffectiveness of current polices, the hardline stances taken by both sides of the antiquities trade debate create an impasse for reform. Consequently, change can only come by recognizing the shortcomings of the current approaches and promoting civil and private remedies that benefit both sides.

Cornelius Banta Jr., Finding Common Ground in the Antiquities Trade Debate to Promote Pragmatic Reforms,

2 thoughts on “Comment on Pragmatic Reform in the Antiquities Trade”

  1. Speaking only for the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild, since we cannot speak for others, I find the appeal for reason by Cornelius Banta Jr. refreshing and could not agree more. Productive dialogue does however require mutual cooperation and that has been lacking for the 12 years that ACCG has been engaged in the cultural property debate. Almost a decade ago, ACCG volunteered to launch and fund a national effort aimed at recovering and repatriating coins stolen from the Kabul Museum in Afghanistan. Our proposal was received by the Afghan Cultural Attache in Washington with genuine enthusiasm and several meetings and exchanges followed. It was forwarded to the Afghan home office, where progress quickly and permanently died on the vine. It was later suggested to us informally that the cooperative venture was nixed by U.S. State Department sponsored Archaeologists in Kabul.

    The ACCG has repeatedly appeared before the Cultural Property Advisory Committee and I personally, as the ACCG representative, have supported Memoranda of Understanding with several countries in the past decade that include import restrictions. The ACCG has consistently called for all collectors and dealers in antiquities to follow the letter and intent of CCPIA as enacted. That is a matter of public record. Yet, archaeologists and their bureaucratic surrogates, who advocate extralegal cultural policies and ignore provisions of law, use every subterfuge possible to discredit those who support the law.

    The dialogue that does exist is consquently adversarial and does not inspire confidence in a meeting of the minds when one side wages a constant war of lies and mischaracterizations in major media propaganda. Shortly after the ACCG was founded, I wrote a letter to the President of the AIA that said very much the same thing that Cornelius Banta suggests above. I did not receive the courtesy of a reply. Several months later, I approached that distinguished professor at a CPAC hearing and introduced myself. I asked if she had received my letter. She responded in one word, “Yes”, turned and walked away. The situation has not improved significantly since then, but hope springs eternal.

  2. I can confirm Wayne’s statement. I had an initial very positive meeting with the cultural attaché at the Afghan Embassy. We forwarded them a proposal to help them recover any coins from the Afghan National Museum that may have slipped into the market over the years. It would cost them nothing. The cultural attaché indicated that he forwarded our proposal to the Antiquities Ministry and that it was where it died. I had another negative experience with Iraq Museum and the late Donnie George. I helped collect numismatic books for the museum that a contact kindly arranged to be delivered to the US Embassy for pick up. After several reminders from my contact, the Iraq Museum only got around to getting them AFTER my contact threatened to send them to the Afghans National Museum instead. In any case, we never got any thank you whatsoever for the effort.

    I’ve also tried to reach out to the AIA over the year with no real success other than a cordial meeting with one of its president’s that did not result in anything concrete. I’ve had other meetings over the years that have also gone no where. I get this sense that even if they think import restrictions on coins (as applied by US Customs) go too far, they are unwilling to back an exemption either for fear of taking heat from their more purist colleagues or perhaps thinking making an exception somehow undercuts their overall position.

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