Ross on the barriers to post-colonial repatriation

“Raven/Sisutl transformation mask by Oscar Matilpi, Kwakwaka’wakw Nation, 1997. In the permanent collection of The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis.” CC BY-SA 3.0

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.

Sara Ross, Res Extra Commercium and the Barriers Faced When Seeking the Repatriation and Return of Potent Cultural Objects: A Transsystemic Critical Post-Colonial Approach, SSRN Scholarly Paper ID 2755435 (Social Science Research Network), Mar. 28, 2016.

My Piece on Property and Heritage

When writers discuss stolen art, repatriation or looting one of the threshold problems is how to classify these objects: either as property or as heritage. It seems to me both concepts are distinct, and in a piece which is now available from the Penn. State Law Review, I’ve argued both should be separated. Here’s the abstract:

This piece takes up the competing concepts of property and heritage. Recent scholarship views property as a series of connections and obligations – rather than the traditional power to control, transfer or exclude. This new view of property may be safeguarding resources for future generations, but also imposes onerous obligations based on concerns over environmental protection, the protection of cultural resources, group rights, and even rights to digital property. Yet these obligations can also be imposed on subsequent generations, and certain obligations are imposed now based on the actions of past generations.
This article examines the multigenerational aspects of property via a body of law which should be called heritage law. Heritage law now governs a wide range of activities some of which include: preventing destruction of works of art, preventing the theft of art and antiquities, preventing the illegal excavation of antiquities, preventing the mutilation and destruction of ancient structures and sites, creating a means for preserving sites and monuments, and even righting past wrongs. This piece justifies the new conceptualization in two ways. First, by showing that properly distinguishing property and heritage will allow us to better protect heritage with a richer, fuller understanding of the concept. And second by demonstrating how current definitions lead to imprecise analysis, which may produce troubling legal conclusions. 

A growing body of heritage law has extended the limitations periods for certain cultural disputes. This has shifted the calculus for the long-term control of real, movable, and even digital property. This can be acutely seen with respect to cultural repatriation claims – specifically the claims of claimants to works of art forcibly taken during World War II; or the claims by Peru to certain anthropological objects now in the possession of Yale University which were removed by Hiram Bingham in the early part of the 20th Century.

You can download the whole article here. I’d be most interested to hear any comments at derek.fincham “at” gmail.com

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

My New Piece on Property and Heritage

I have posted on SSRN a working draft titled “The Distinctiveness of Property and Heritage“.  I argue we need to be careful to observe and honor the differences between the competing ideas of property and heritage by discussing how the law may be shifting to meet new challenges.  The end result I think will be a renewed appreciation for cultural claims via a body of law which can be called “heritage law”.  As always any comments or criticisms would be most appreciated.  Also, if any readers have any works in progress they would like me to publicize, or if you have a recent piece you would like me to share, please do pass them along.

Here is the abstract to my work in progress:



This piece takes up the competing concepts of property and heritage. Recent scholarship views property as a series of connections and obligations – rather than the traditional power to control, transfer or exclude. This new view of property may be safeguarding resources for future generations, but also imposes onerous obligations based on concerns over environmental protection, the protection of cultural resources, group rights, and even rights to digital property. Yet these obligations can also be imposed on subsequent generations, and certain obligations are imposed now based on the actions of past generations.

This article examines the multigenerational aspects of property via a body of law which should be called heritage law. Heritage law now governs a wide range of activities some of which include: preventing destruction of works of art, preventing the theft of art and antiquities, preventing the illegal excavation of antiquities, preventing the mutilation and destruction of ancient structures and sites, creating a means for preserving sites and monuments, and even righting past wrongs. This piece justifies the new conceptualization in two ways. First, by showing that properly distinguishing property and heritage will allow us to better protect heritage with a richer, fuller understanding of the concept. And second by demonstrating how current definitions lead to imprecise analysis, which may produce troubling legal conclusions.

A growing body of heritage law has extended the limitations periods for certain cultural disputes. This has shifted the calculus for the long-term control of real, movable, and even digital property. This can be acutely seen with respect to cultural repatriation claims – specifically the claims of claimants to works of art forcibly taken during World War II; or the claims by Peru to certain anthropological objects now in the possession of Yale University which were removed by Hiram Bingham in the early part of the 20th Century.

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

Harding on "Perpetual Property"

Sarah Harding has posted her paper “Perpetual Property” 61 Florida Law Review (2009) on SSRN.  Many of these ideas speak to the importance of limitations rules for claimants, particularly in the Nazi spoliation context.  These rules have been expanded to accommodate these past injustices, which may be a very good thing for redressing the wrongs of the past, but might alos have some undesirable consequences for other areas.

Here’s the abstract:

This paper explores the emergence of perpetual property in a number of discrete areas of property law: the longevity of servitudes in historic and environmental preservation, the ever growing time span of intellectual property rights, the disappearance of the rules against perpetual interests, and the temporally unlimited reach of cultural property claims. While the demise of temporal limitations is itself worthy of recognition and will be the focus of a significant part of this paper, my primary interest is whether these changes tell us something about shifting cultural attitudes to the institution of private property. If it is the case, as a number of prominent sociologists have argued, that an exploration of social attitudes toward time is indispensable to an understanding of our current cultural conditions then exploring temporal limitations in property law will presumably help us better understand what Professor Radin has called the cultural commitments of property. This topic is particularly compelling when one considers that the emergence of perpetual property, with its assumption of stability and permanence, has occurred at a time when speed, flexibility and impermanence are dominant features of our current social conditions. The prevailing conditions in society, even a single generation into the future, are likely to be so different from today that long-term control of property seems anachronistic and paradoxical. So why is it that in an era of rapid technological change we are more willing to tolerate perpetual property interests?
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

My Article on Conflict of Laws and Cultural Property

I have posted on SSRN the final version of my paper titled How Adopting the Lex Originis Rule Can Impede the Flow of Illicit Cultural Property, 32 Columbia Journal of Law and the Arts 111.

Pictured here is a Byzantine mosaic from the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, similar to the mosaics taken from Northern Cyprus which gave rise to the Goldberg suit. The Seventh Circuit Federal Court of Appeals upheld the default—and problematic for cultural property disputes—lex situs rule in holding “Indiana law and rules govern every aspect of this action, from the statute of limitations issues through the application of the substantive law of replevin.” The trial court had noted that although Switzerland was the location of the wrongful activity, it bore little connection to the cause of action. None of the parties or important actors was Swiss; the mosaics had never been in the stream of commerce in Switzerland; and they had only been on Swiss soil for four days. The jurisdiction with the closest connection to the objects was Cyprus, not Indiana. After all, the mosaics had been firmly fixed to the church for over 1400 years. Although it would therefore make sense to give concessions in the law to jurisdictions such as Cyprus, courts have shown a hesitancy to apply the law of the source nation, or lex originis.

Here is the abstract:


The International trade and transfer of art and antiquities faces problems because nations have erected very different rules with respect to movable property. All nations forbid theft, however most cultural property disputes involve an original owner and a subsequent good faith possessor. Different jurisdictions have chosen to allocate rights and responsibilities between these two relative innocents in very different ways. Disharmony in the law is seldom a good thing, but in the realm of cultural property it can be particularly damaging to the interests of nations, museums, individuals, and our collective cultural heritage. The lack of harmony ensures no overarching policy choices will be furthered, which prevents parties from anticipating legal outcomes and giving substance to policies.

This article explores the default conflict of law rules which are applied to cultural property, and shows how the lex situs rule exploits the various legal rules which apply to art and antiquities. It challenges the lofty position enjoyed by the lex situs rule and proposes a radical reform of the default choice of law analysis. By employing the law of the Nation of Origin or lex originis courts can ensure the jurisdiction with the most tangible connection to an object enjoys the benefit of applying its legal rules to a given dispute. This will not only ensure the security of art and antiquities transactions, but impart much-needed transparency into the cultural property trade, and finally will decrease the theft and illegal excavation of art and antiquities.

The article begins by presenting some examples of recent disputes, and the problems they present for the law and cultural heritage policy. Section II describes the fundamental difficulty of adjudicating claims between two relative innocents, and the disharmony which has resulted as different jurisdictions have resolved this conundrum in very different ways. Section III lays out the ways in which private international law impacts art and antiquities disputes. Section IV analyzes the 1995 UNIDROIT Convention, the most recent attempt to harmonize the law affecting cultural property. Section V proposes a radical reform of the choice of law enquiry taken by courts.

Keywords: art, antiquities, private international law, conflict of laws, international law, lex originis, lex situs, renvoi, art theft, antiquities, cultural heritage, cultural property

I’d be delighted to hear any reactions to the work at derek.fincham “at” gmail.com.

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