Urice and Adler on the "Executive Branch’s Extralegal Cultural Property Policy"

Stephen K. Urice (Associate Professor at the University of Miami School of Law) and Andrew Adler (Law Clerk for the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals and adjunct Professor at the University of Miami School of Law) have posted a recent paper on the Executive Branch’s Cultural Property Policy on SSRN, Unveiling the Executive Branch’s Extralegal Cultural Property PolicyHere is the abstract:

In this Article we reveal that the executive branch of the United States has consistently – and astonishingly – exceeded constraining legal authority with respect to the movement of cultural property into the United States. To illustrate this assertion, we identify three distinct categories of extralegal cultural property practices. First, we describe how the Department of Justice, misapplying the National Stolen Property Act, has obtained the return of cultural objects to their countries of origin by filing legally-deficient civil forfeiture complaints. Second, we describe how the Justice Department has pursued this same objective by proceeding under a legally-erroneous interpretation of the Archaeological Resources Protection Act. Third, we describe how the Department of State has repeatedly undermined the statutory structure and mandatory criteria of the Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act, resulting in significant import restrictions on cultural property. All of these practices exceed constraining legal authority and lead to a similar result. Accordingly, we describe this pattern of practices as forming an extralegal cultural property policy. We express no opinion about the wisdom of this policy. Rather, our purposes in unveiling this policy are to promote a rigorous and transparent review of the executive’s practices and to restore the rule of law. In our conclusion we speculate as to why the executive has undertaken these practices and, among other observations, suggest with some sympathy that the current legal framework is outdated.

Many readers will likely find the arguments these authors make troubling.  I’d encourage you to give the piece a read on its own merits.  Though these authors are critical of the policies of the Executive branch, this does not mean that they endorse the looting of sites or the black market—rather they are pointing out flaws in how the Executive branch and the Cultural Property Advisory Committee has attempted to restrict the trade in illicit antiquities.  Very interesting and worthy of serious attention.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Public Comment on the U.S.-Italy Memorandum of Understanding

The State Department Cultural Heritage Center has announced it wants public comments on the potential renewal of the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the United States and Italy.  

There will be a meeting of the Cultural Property Advisory Committee on Thursday, May 6, 2010, from 9 a.m. to approximately 5 p.m., and on Friday, May 7, 2010, from 9:00 a.m. to approximately 3 p.m., at the Department of State, Annex 5, 2200 C Street, NW., Washington, DC. During its meeting the Committee will review a proposal to extend the“Memorandum of Understanding Between the Government of the United States of America and the Government of the Republic of Italy Concerning the Imposition of Import Restrictions on Categories of Archaeological Material Representing the Pre-Classical, Classical and Imperial Roman Periods of Italy” signed in Washington, DC on January19, 2001 and amended and extended in 2006 through an exchange of diplomatic notes.

 There is also an opportunity to write a letter and express your opinion on the MOU, the deadline is April 22, 2010.  The Archaeological Institute of America has information on the letter-writing process here.  Note that you should either fax (202-632-6300) or email (culprop@state.gov) your letter due to security delays with traditional mail. 

This is one of the ways in which the United States has chosen to implement the 1970 UNESCO Convention.  The MOU does a number of things.  It restricts the import of certain classes of undocumented objects from Italy.  But if those objects carry the appropriate documentation, importation is allowed.  It also calls for long-term loans of Italian objects, and collaboration between the United States and Italy. 

Those interested in the MOU and the practical impact it has or has not had should look to the recent edited volume, Criminology and Archaeology (Simon Mackenzie and Penny Green, 2009). I review the volume in the Spring issue of the Journal of Art Crime. Of particular interest is Gordon Lobay’s contribution, which looks empirically at how the U.S.-Italy MOU has made an impact on the antiquities market—at least the observable licit market.  I encourage interested readers to check out the volume, as his conclusion has been that the volume of objects sold, and their prices have increased over time.  The most profound impact has been that auction houses have begun to “pay more attention to provenance.”  Though typically this is not the findspot or complete history but rather reference to an earlier sale of an object. 

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

China’s CPAC Request Granted

 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. 

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

An Unkind Response to my PAS Article (LATE UPDATE)

I have just noticed that Paul Barford has produced a very long response to my article on the Portable Antiquities Scheme. Initially I was pleased that my article had gained some notice. Imagine my dismay then when Barford accuses me of producing, ‘glib spin’, bad writing, claims I’m ignorant, and even hints that I’ve committed plagiarism. And he didn’t even do me the courtesy of sending an email.

I hope there might be a serious scholarly response to the article at some point, and I look forward to reading it. At present I’m not aware of any thoughtful scholarly work (peer-reviewed for example) which criticizes the PAS. Perhaps Barford would be inclined to produce something like this? Given the tenor of his blog though, I wonder if he is capable of passing peer-review.

I don’t really have a lot to say about the points he raises, because there aren’t any intellectually honest arguments. Rather he’s displayed an unfortunate tendency to produce Rovian and Hannity-style discourse. He takes my arguments out of context, wilfully twisting them in a way which indicates an inability to conduct any kind of meaningful discourse.

To take one example, he writes:

[T]he PAS allegedly represents a policy that: “sharply contrasts with the context-focused narrative found in most culture heritage scholarship”. This gives a totally false impression of the PAS and its aims… It is all about context of the finds in its database.

Right, well here’s what the article states:

The PAS is the voluntary system created to record and document objects that are not encompassed by the Treasure Act and are unearthed legally. The PAS is a novel approach to undiscovered antiquities, which rests on a legal framework that essentially allows amateur and unprofessional digging. This policy cuts against the overriding policy choices of most nations of origin and sharply contrasts with the context-focused narrative found in most cultural heritage scholarship.

He also accuses me of stating the PAS pays finders and detectorists. No. I state very clearly “If the object is deemed treasure, the finder is entitled to a reward based on the market price of the object.” One of the main reasons I wrote the piece was to make clear that the PAS does not pay finders of non-treasure objects! Finders of treasure recieve a reward, and have since the 19th century; the PAS works in conjunction with this legal framework to encourage voluntary reporting of objects the Crown has no legal claim to.

I don’t expect everyone will agree with my perspective, but at the very least an individual who claims to be an academic would be able to respond in an honest and thoughtful way. I’d encourage Barford to adopt the perspective of Kimberley Alderman, who has recently started a very nice blog:

Here are the things I think would promote more meaningful discourse:

1. Less polarization between what have been characterized as competing “sides” of the argument.

2. Less emphasis on doctrinal positions (on both sides) and more emphasis on solving the mutual goal of cultural preservation.

3. More emphasis on what is working as opposed to what is not.

4. Less emphasis on what positions people have espoused in the past (too often used as a means to unproductively attack).

5. More precision in language used …

That’s very good advice I think. It’s a brief statement of a similar kind of argument made by Alexander Bauer recently. A. A. Bauer (2008). “New Ways of Thinking About Cultural Property,” Fordham International Law Journal 31:690-724.

I’m happy to accept legitimate criticism. Petty attacks aren’t doing anyone any favors though. Barford is not a fan of the PAS. He’s entitled to that opinion, but give me some clear reasons why the current system is harmful, and provide a better legal or policy framework. If you’ve got a better ‘mousetrap’, tell us about it — if you can do so respectfully.


I see Barford has responded here. Regrettably the newer post is only slightly less strident.

As he rightly points out, I neglected to include a link to his extended response to the article which is here. He claims to have pointed out “serious problems” with the article. I’m afraid we will have to agree to disagree on that point. I’m happy to have a spirited debate on the PAS, but mis-characterizing my position and taking statements out of context makes such a productive discussion impossible, and he has yet to correct these errors. When my first year law students make these kind of analytical mistakes its an indication of weak analysis and insufficient research.

At its core, I argue in the article that a national ownership declaration is an important legal strategy; but this declaration in isolation does not necessarily create the best cultural heritage policy. In fact there’s legal precedent which makes this very point (see US v. Johnson 720 F.Supp. 810, 811 (C.D.Cal.1989)) and the US accession to the UNESCO Convention via the CPIA takes the efforts of nations of origin into account when the CPAC considers export restriction requests.

I assume that effectively guarding every archaeological site is impossible given limited resources. Even in the US, a wealthy nation, there is widespread looting of Native American sites. A nation like Peru has even more difficulty given its developing economy and the remote location of many sites. The looting of these sites in North and South America is a travesty. This is a foudational problem with heritage policy. One potential solution is a policy framework and network of PAS-style liason officers. But that’s not to say that these states should encourage metal-detecting or the like.

Rather I think outreach and education is badly needed. Barford argues this exists in many nations of origin already. Perhaps he is right, but we are merely talking speculatively. Where is the evidence? I’d be delighted to read some thoughts on this. The PAS works in conjunction with the law, which was of course a compromise postion between heritage advocates and landowners. A very strong legal regime may in a perfect world be the best policy. But what good are they if they aren’t meaningfully enforced? These laws can be compared with abstinence only sex education or America’s ill-advised “War on Drugs”. When it comes to practice, they aren’t producing the desired results — less teen pregnancy or drug abuse for example. In the heritage context, the PAS and metal detectorists are producing contextual information. It’s a different kind of information, which we can characterize as shallow but extremely broad; rather than a thorough documentation of sites which might be narrow but very deep.

This more permissive legal regime has actually produced important contextual information, which historians, researchers and archaeologists are using to write scholarship. Research is being produced with the PAS and its database, and it is including the broader public in heritage and archaeology, which will ideally bring more attention to heritage issues generally. Did Hiram Bingham include locals in his efforts to excavate Macchu Picchu? Modern-day Peruvians think not, which has led to a host of very public disagreements between Yale and Peru.

The PAS policy unquestionably sacrifices some archaeological context, but is there any nation of origin which is able to ensure all of its sites are professionally excavated or remain untouched? Is some contextual information better than none?

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Germany and the UNESCO Convention

David Gill speculates today that Germany may be a hub of the antiquities trade after recent reforms in Switzerland. That may be possible, or perhaps even likely, but he provides little empirical evidence, and merely some offers speculation. He does not consider for example the very useful EU restrictions on cultural objects which effectively prevent the trade in objects originating from EU member nations.

In the post he references an article by Andrew Curry ($), a journalist. Journalists do a lot of good reporting, and Curry may be a great one. Journalists who report on the law, particularly one as malleable as the UNESCO Convention often miss the mark however. Curry’s summary of the UNESCO Convention, and the arguments Gill makes are very misleading.

Curry’s piece states:

Whereas the United States and many of the other 112 signatories to the convention restrict or prohibit trade in broad categories of artifacts, the German law passed last Friday requires countries to publish lists of specific items they consider valuable to their cultural heritage. Only those items will be protected under German law, which means trade in undocumented artifacts, such as those looted from archaeological sites, will be difficult to restrict. “This is a bad signal,” says Michael Mueller-Karpe, an archaeologist at the Roman-German Central Museum in Mainz. “It tells the world that whatever isn’t published isn’t worth protecting.”

This is wrong on at least two accounts. First, both the United States and Switzerland do not prohibit broad categories of objects. They must be subject to ownership declarations. The real important issue here is the enforcement and recognition of foreign export restrictions. To recognize these both the US and Switzerland require individual nations to make a request and require bilateral agreements to implement the heightened restrictions. This is the province of the Cultural Property Advisory Committee in the United States.

Second, Germany requires nations to publish lists of specific items they consider valuable because this is what the Convention requires. Article 5 of the Convention states,

To ensure the protection of their cultural property against illicit import; export and transfer of ownership, the States Parties to this Convention undertake, as appropriate for each country, to set up within their territories one or more national services, where such services do not already exist, for the protection of the cultural heritage, with a qualified staff sufficient in number for the effective carrying out of the following functions:

(a) contributing to the formation of draft laws and regulations designed to secure the protection of the cultural heritage and particularly prevention of the illicit import, export and transfer of ownership of important cultural property;

(b) establishing and keeping up to date, on the basis of a national inventory of protected property, a list of important public and private cultural property whose export would constitute an appreciable impoverishment of the national cultural heritage;

(c) promoting the development or the establishment of scientific and technical institutions (museums, libraries, archives, laboratories, workshops . . . ) required to ensure the preservation and presentation of cultural property;

(d) organizing the supervision of archaeological excavations, ensuring the preservation `in situation’ of certain cultural property, and protecting certain areas reserved for future archaeological research;

(e) establishing, for the benefit of those concerned (curators, collectors, antique dealers, etc.) rules in conformity with the ethical principles set forth in this Convention; and taking steps to ensure the observance of those rules;

(f) taking educational measures to stimulate and develop respect for the cultural heritage of all States, and spreading knowledge of the provisions of this Convention;

(g) seeing that appropriate publicity is given to the disappearance of any items of cultural property.

Note that article 5(b) requires a register and specific definition, the very thing Gill criticizes Germany for doing. This actually strikes me as a very good policy idea. Cultural heritage can mean lots of things to lots of people. I don’t see how its an onerous task for nations of origin at minimum to broadly define categories of objects which should be It should be noted that very few nations have successfully completed this task. This is one flaw, among many, of the UNESCO Convention.

The Convention is an important foundational document, but as a legal instrument leaves a great deal to be desired. Article 2, which can be read more broadly imposes vague requirements on States Party, but States are free to implement the Convention with a great deal of discretion.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Brent Benjamin Appointed to CPAC

The White House announced back in September that President Bush will nominate Brent R. Benjamin to serve on the Cultural Property Advisory Committee for three years. David Gill commented on the appointment, as did Wayne Sayles. Earlier in July, Robert O’Brien, a Los Angeles attorney was nominated as well, though his appointment attracted little notice.

Ton Cremers, an administrator on the invaluable Museum Security Network argues this was an “outrageous” appointment. The reason for the concern is this antiquity, the Ka-Nefer-Nefer mask which I discussed at length last year.

It was stolen from a storehouse in Saqqara sometime between its excavation in an archaeological dig in 1952, and its acquisition by the St. Louis Art Museum in 1998. It may be worth examining this acquisition in more detail. The best summary of the dispute I have found is this 2006 article in the Riverfront Times.

As always, the antiquities trade presents a number of questions. Was Benjamin at the museum in 1998 when it acquired this object? No, he came a year after the mask was acquired. Do his actions with respect to this mask disqualify him automatically from serving on the committee? I’m not sure they do. Does this ongoing dispute between Egypt and the St. Louis Art Museum automatically disqualify Benjamin from serving on the committee? Not according to President Bush, but did the Museum really have clean hands when they acquired the mask? The answer I think is not really.

They purchased it from Hichaam Aboutaam, who has been linked with looted antiquities. The work had been displayed at a Museum in Geneva when the SLAM was considering purchasing the work. However, the museum sent Mohammed Saleh, a retired director of the Cairo Museum a letter asking:

“[We have] been offered a mummy mask of the 19th dynasty and I was wondering if you know of any parallels to this object. I have never seen anything quite like it with a reddish copper-like face probably owing to the oxidation of the gold surface. It is currently on exhibition in the Egyptian exhibition at the Museum of Art and History in Geneva. I would greatly appreciate your thoughts on any parallels you might know of this piece and hope that I might have the opportunity to speak with you in several weeks by telephone about this opportunity.”

Saleh of course was not perhaps the best person in Egypt to contact about the mask. Shouldn’t someone on the Supreme Council on Antiquities have been better positioned to handle this request? Unfortunately this is the shady kind of enquiry which can pass for thorough provenance research in the antiquities trade. I think its likely perhaps that the SLAM was not too eager to look to deeply into the history of this object, for fear they would be unable to acquire it. The museum was told by the seller that the mask was seen at an antiquities dealer in 1952, and it remained in the ubiquitous “Swiss Collection” for the next 40 years. An expert hired by the museum, Peter Lacovara, reasoned that the mask was probably awarded to the excavator after the 1952 excavation. This would account for its appearance at a market in Brussels soon after, though refuting that fact is nearly impossible at this point.

Egypt has a tenable claim perhaps, but this is a close case. I’m not aware of the specific steps Egypt has taken in response. They have seemingly argued that the mask was stolen at some point from an antiquities storehouse. Now, its their cultural heritage and they’re free to do with it what they please, but Egypt can be criticized on two accounts. First, is it really the best idea to have a unique piece like this mask just sitting in a warehouse for fifty years? Second, had Egypt documented its collection and its holdings more completely, they would have had a much stronger legal and ethical claim.

In any event, nobody looks really good in this dispute. Not the museum, the Phoenix gallery, nor Egypt. But I’m not sure Benjamin, by merely refusing to return the mask outright to Egypt has disqualified himself from serving on the CPAC, which it should be mentioned is comprised of individuals from all the disparate heritage interest groups, including archaeologists. Also, the CPAC has never refused a request made by a nation of origin.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

China and the CPIA

Kevin Bogardus has an interesting article in The Hill on the State Department and its Cultural Property Advisory Committee taking its sweet time in deciding on whether to impose import restrictions on Chinese antiquities.

China made the request in 2004, and both proponents and critics of the restrictions are eager for a decision. Members of the Ancient Coin Collector’s Guild and others have even brought suit to elicit more information from the State Department about the deliberations with respect to the requests of China and Cyprus. It seems they have started to receive “heavily redacted” documents. Given the administration’s adamant refusal to disclose what it deems privileged information, even on the most mundane matters, it should be a long and difficult task. This is regrettable. Though I don’t share their criticism of the restriction, I do think we would all be better served in knowing how these decisions are made.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com