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.