Urice on "Unprovenanced Antiquities and the National Stolen Property Act"

Stephen K. Urice, an Associate Law Professor at the University of Miami has an interesting piece (nicely titled) called Between Rocks and Hard Places:  Unprovenanced Antiquities and the National Stolen Property Act, 40 N. Mex. L. Rev. 123 (2010). He examines the implications of a conviction or acquittal in the investigation stemming from the search of four California museums in early 2008.

From the introduction:

This  article  argues  that  continued  application  of  the  NSPA  in  cases  involving unprovenanced antiquities risks outcomes that undermine one or both of two U.S. policy goals: (1) protecting the global archaeological record and (2) promoting museums’ charitable and educational missions. Accordingly, this article suggests that the current uncertainty in how courts apply the NSPA in the unique circumstances of determining title to undocumented antiquities might best be resolved by pursuing alternatives to continued reliance on the NSPA in these circumstances. 
Part II introduces necessary background information on the concept of provenance;  the  distinction  between  foreign  nations’  export  and  vesting  statutes  (referred  to  collectively  as  “patrimony  statutes”);  and  the  relationship  between foreign patrimony statutes and the NSPA. Part III explores, in detail, the application of the NSPA in criminal cases involving unprovenanced antiquities, emphasizing  the  distinction  between  the  Fifth  and  the  Second  Circuit  Courts  of  Appeals’ approaches.  Part  III  also  describes  Congress’s  1986  amendments  to  the  NSPA, which (without apparent legislative intent to do so) have made application of the NSPA in cases involving unprovenanced antiquities especially problematic. Part IV addresses, in the context of existing U.S. policies, allegations in the search warrants that two California museums possess stolen Thai antiquities. Part V describes potential outcomes of any criminal prosecution under the facts alleged in the search warrants. Part VI concludes with simple sketches of three possible alternatives to the United States’ existing framework for combating trafficking in unprovenanced antiquities.
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

The Rufino Tamayo Prehispanic Museum: A Museum to Thwart Illegal Artifact Traders

Over the summer we were able to take a vacation for 10 days to catch up with some friends in Oaxaca, Mexico; an outstanding city and region with a lot of great culture (particularly food) to offer.  
During the trip, we visited the Rufino Tamayo museum in central Oaxaca.  It is a museum devoted to  indigenous culture, created from Tamayo’s personal collection, in an attempt to prevent the illegal trade in antiquities. There are terrific terracotta pieces which depict village life or sporting events.  There are also headdresses and other pieces of jewelry.  In one of the rooms, the museum states in a variety of languages:
This museum is dedicated to the millenary art which flourished in the area call now-a-days the Republic of Mexico.
Art entirely inspired (with the exception of occidental Mexico) by pre-Columbian religions and myths.  It represents the deified forces of nature:  the sun, the wind, the water and a multitude of other natural phenomena.
But if in our time the pieces exhibited in the niches of this museum impress its visitors, it is not for religious feelings, because the religions of ancient Mexico a long time ago have been forgotten.  Reather, they are moved by the aesthetic rank of the works, their beauty, power and originality.
It is the first time that a Mexican museum exhibits the relics of Indian past in terms of aesthetic phenomena, in terms of works of art.
Each of the rooms of the “Museo del Arte Prehispanico De Mexico Rufino Tamayo” presents—with a certain liberty—objects and sculptures of a specific region and a specific time.
The painter Rufino Tamayo collected these pieces with a great love and artistic sense over more than twenty years, not only for his own pleasure, but also with the purpose of protecting them from exportation and illegal traffac and, first of all, with the wish of donating them to the people of Oaxaca, his native state.  
Tamayo left the museum to his native state, to make his countrymen aware of their cultural heritage, and to prevent these objects from being sold abroad. Tamayo was a Zapotec painter born near Oaxaca.  He lived in New York from 1926 to 1959.  In 1959 he returned to Mexico and soon after created this museum.  The museum has a number of stunning works, from all over Mexico.  But going through the museum, I was left wondering what the difference between Tamayo and certain other high-profile buyers of antiquities may be.  How is Tamayo, and his archaeological museum any different from what Robin Symes may have done for example?  They are different, but there are some troubling similarities as well.  I think the one difference is Tamayo acquired these objects and kept them in Mexico, though not necessarily their region.  He was preventing the loss of these works of art abroad.  But were these objects excavated by archaeologists?  The museum visitor is not told.  
There’s nothing inherently wrong with that I don’t think, I mean not every museum needs to focus on the antiquities trade.  But certainly there is not a lot of information provided to the museum-visitor.  We are told in broad strokes where these objects came from, what culture produced them (Maya, Aztec, Zapotec, etc.) but you don’t’ get a sense these were objects that were excavated by archaeologists.  Rather these are objects which are exhibited for their beauty, to show off the impressive works that were created before Europeans arrived. Displaying these objects sends a powerful message to locals and visitors; just like displaying them in New York or London would send a very different kind of message.  In Mexico, they are a symbol of national and indigenous pride.  If they were displayed in New York, they might be seen as a cultural appropriation, or even a sign that Mexicans are unable to properly care for their own works of art.
Mexico and its cultural heritage laws have played a vital role in cultural heritage law.  I wonder as well if part of the impetus for those laws was supported by efforts like the Tamayo pre-hispanic museum.  Mexico has strict export restrictions for art and antiquities, as well as a number of agreements with the US for enforcing those agreements.  One of Mexico’s first efforts to safeguard its cultural heritage was the enactment in 1916 of the Law on the Conservation of Historical or Artistic Monuments, Buildings, Churches and Objects.  In 1972, Mexico—probably in response to the recent UNESCO Convention—enacted the Federal Law on Archaeological, Artistic and Historical Monuments and Sites which defines illicit traffic of cultural patrimony as the import and export of cultural property that is stolen or not given official permission to leave the country.  Of course the important McClain prosecutions in the U.S. were a response to the theft of pre-Columbian objects from Mexico.  
In the McClain cases (United States v. McClain, 545 F.2d 988 (5th Cir. 1977); United States v. McClain, 593 F.2d 658 (5th Cir. 1979) The defendants were convicted under the NSPA for stealing pre-Columbian artefacts from Mexico, and selling them in the United States.  This group of art dealers and appraisers created a network in Mexico where artefacts were taken from excavations to the Mexican Archaeological Institute; they were then given false papers and backdated before 1972 in an attempt to give them clean provenance.  The objects were then taken across the border to Calexico, California where they were sold.  These actions ultimately raised the suspicions of the director of the Mexican Cultural Institute, which informed the FBI, resulting in an undercover investigation.

A Mexican law passed in 1972 nationalized ownership of undiscovered pre-Columbian artefacts.  As a result, the provenance and date of discovery of the objects was an important potential issue.  However, in the first conviction, the government presented no evidence as to how and when the objects were discovered or exported.  The first prosecution, often termed McClain I, dealt with the vesting of ownership of antiquities with Mexico, with the court considering the definition of “stolen” under the National Stolen Property Act in the United States.  It determined that the term should be given a broad meaning and remanded to the district court the issue of when precisely the objects were exported from Mexico.

Although the prosecution argued that an 1897 law accomplished state ownership, the court held title did not completely vest with Mexico until enactment of the 1972 law, because only then did Mexico declare ownership of all pre-Columbian artefacts.  The jury had not been instructed to determine when any of the pre-Columbian objects at issue had been exported from Mexico, or how to apply the relevant Mexican law to the export.  Because of the improper jury instruction, the court remanded the controversy back to the Federal District Court.  Although a temporary victory for the defendants, McClain I firmly established the applicability of the NSPA to pieces of cultural property emanating from nations which had vested title to these objects in the state, even where the objects have never been within the physical possession of the foreign government.    

On remand, the defendants were once again convicted of violating the NSPA, and of conspiracy to violate the act.  At the retrial, the prosecution was required to establish beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendants knew they were selling stolen objects.  In McClain II, the court upheld the conspiracy conviction due to overwhelming evidence that the defendants intended to smuggle Mexican artefacts, clearly violating the 1972 Mexican Act, and by implication the NSPA.  However, the conviction under the NSPA itself was overturned because of due process concerns.  The District Court Judge and not the jury must determine questions of foreign law.  As the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals reasoned, the most likely interpretation of the evidence by the jury led to the conclusion that Mexico deemed itself the owner of its pre-Columbian objects as early as 1897.  However, that act was too vague to impose criminal liability upon a defendant under the “jurisprudential standards” of the United States.


The conviction of the McClain defendants for conspiracy to violate the NSPA firmly established that individuals may be convicted under the NSPA for dealing in objects that foreign states have nationalized.  This ownership interest will be enforced by U.S. courts, despite the absence of any actual possession of the object by the foreign state.

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

Federal Art Theft Prosecution

The trial of Robert Mardirosian has begun. For much more on the initial arrest of the former attorney, see my earlier summary here, and more from Donn Zaretsky.

Assistant US Attorney Jonathan Mitchell argued the defendant was “caught red-handed”, while the defense attorney argued his client only wanted to collect a finder’s fee for the works.
He’s accused of theft under the National Stolen Property Act for concealing and possessing stolen works, including this work by Cezanne, Pitcher and Fruits. This and six other works were stolen from Michael Bakwin in 1978, but had been entrusted to Mardirosian by the thief. The works had been shifted all over the world from Massachusetts to Switzerland to London to Monaco. I’ll have more on the trial when the jury reaches a decision.
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Looting in Southern Illinois

Len Wells of the Evansville Courier Press had an interesting article Sunday on the looting of Native American burial grounds in Southern Illinois.

“We noticed a trail going out through a wheat field and followed it,” said John Schwegman of Metropolis, Ill., who works with the Kincaid Mounds Support Organization. “We found they had dug a hole about 6 feet long, 4 feet deep and 3 to 4 feet wide.”

Schwegman said the same site had been looted last summer. The hole was filled in then, but it was targeted again this spring.

“We believe there are at least two, and maybe more looters working, since they were working two holes at the same time,” Schwegman said. “They’re pretty bold, since they parked their vehicles in our own parking lot.”

Investigators said the looters have dug three holes in the Pope County ground and a fourth one a short distance away in Massac County. Pieces of broken flint and stones were discovered near the holes after looters abandoned the sites. The first holes were discovered about six weeks ago.

The Kincaid Mounds Historic Site consists of 105 acres in the heart of the Kincaid Mounds Archaeological Site. Portions of the site extend to private property north and east of the site. The state property has been designated a National Historic Landmark and is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Portions of the site had been excavated, but not the area targeted by the looters. The $2,000 reward is a good incentive, but the odds appear slim that these objects will be found or the culprits caught. This kind of theft carries criminal penalties under the National Stolen Property Act, as well as the Archaeological Resources Protection Act. However these criminal measures will likely not assist in bringing these looters to justice, and the huge land area makes patrolling this and other Native American sites – which would allow officials to catch the looter in the act – difficult and impracticable.

Can we consider eliminating the market in these objects? Yes, but for many objects found on private land in the United States, not associated with burial grounds or religious practices, it is legal for individuals to excavate. I’m not aware of how many native American objects are purportedly found on private land, I’d expect most objects come from National Historic Places, or Federal or State parks which have been set aside, and are protected de jure, but this may not always result in de facto protection.

There is a tendency perhaps to get too focused on looting which just occurs in Italy or the Mediterranean. The reality is it takes place everywhere, and the current legal and policy measures aimed at stopping it are having some effect, but much more can and should be done. Perhaps more scrutiny of the Portable Antiquities Scheme in England and Wales could help alleviate some of these problems…

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

Can the West do More to Protect Iraqi Antiquities?


Dr. Bahaa Mayah, a special adviser to Iraq’a Minister of Tourism and Antiquities, has strongly criticized the response of the West to the trade in looted or stolen antiquities originating from Iraq. Dr. Mayah held a press conference yesterday at the British Museum, and argued it was the occupying forces’ responsibility to retrieve the valuable objects taken since 2003. He also urged a global ban on Iraqi antiquities via a UN Security Council resolution. He said “Our antiquities are scattered everywhere from America to Europe. This problem is not new but it has intensified since 2oo3 and is now becoming a bigger problem.”

Speaking of America specifically, he argued “America is co-operating and not co-operating at the same time. We were grateful when they returned the Statue of Entemena (from 2,430BC) but at the same time, you see auctioneers all over the country trading in our antiquities. No action is being taken”. This statement, curiously, comes on the same day the Department of State published a notice of an import Restriction to Protect the Cultural Heritage of Iraq.

You can also hear his comments on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row program here, his interview starts at about 18 minutes in, which David Gill has noted this morning as well.

There at three separate issues here, first is what can be done to prevent looting in Iraq and how to regulate the illicit trade in Iraqi antiquities. Second, is the damage done by occupying forces to important sites at Babylon and elsewhere. Finally, there is the claim for restitution for objects which have long in the British Museum collection. The first two, it seems to me are related. The final question, which speaks to the notion of Universal Museums, must be separated. Every time this kind of discussion spins off into a discussion of the Parthenon Marbles and other restitutions, I think we lose site of the present ongoing issue: the looting of sites, and the illicit trade.

I am sympathetic to Dr. Mayar, as he must find it difficult dealing with a myriad of different agencies in Europe, and he feels the burden is on the source nation to give evidence of of an object’s illicit nature. Unfortunately this is the regime which the 1970 UNESCO Convention has produced, and efforts to create an effective multilateral agreement in this arena have been notoriously difficult. I think that must surely be tied to the disagreement and acrimonious nature the debates often engender.

Prof. Patty Gerstenblith has noted before that a lot of the reporting and discussion of the law as it pertains to the antiquities trade is wrong, and misses the point completely. I have to agree. Dr. Mayar talks about the incomplete response of the West to the trade in Iraqi antiquities, but I think the US and the UK have taken the necessary steps to attach criminal penalties to this trade. International law already bans the trade in Iraqi antiquities, under UN Security Council Resolution 1483:

Decides that all Member States shall take appropriate steps to facilitate the safe return to Iraqi institutions of Iraqi cultural property and other items of archaeological, historical, cultural, rare scientific, and religious importance illegally removed from the Iraq National Museum, the National Library, and other locations in Iraq since the adoption of resolution 661 (1990) of 6 August 1990, including by establishing a prohibition on trade in or transfer of such items and items with respect to which reasonable suspicion exists that they have been illegally removed, and calls upon the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, Interpol, and other international organizations, as appropriate, to assist in the implementation of this paragraph;

In the United Kingdom, the Theft Act 1968, the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002, and the Iraq (UN Sanctions) Order 2003 creates a criminal offence for merely being in possession of Iraqi Antiquities.

The United States has banned the import of Iraqi antiquities, and the National Stolen Property Act, as well as the powerful Civil Forfeiture mechanisms available to Federal Prosecutors strongly regulate the criminal aspects of the trade.

The difficulty of course, and its one that Dr. Mayar speaks to, is the difficulty in establishing evidence of the fact that an object originated in Iraq, when it could have originated from any one of a number of countries. Are there Iraqi antiquities currently being sold in the United States and United Kingdom? I’ll confess I don’t know. His comments strongly indicate they are, but I’m unaware of such sales, or any reports indicating this is the case.

Ultimately, I think the US and the UK in particular have taken nearly all the steps they can to regulate the criminal aspects of the trade. To shift burdens any further would, without being overly dramatic here, require Constitutional-level reworking, to allow fewer rights for criminal defendants. That is a step no thinking person can responsibly advocate. That’s at the core of my arguments about the utility of the criminal response to the illicit trade. The solution, as I see it, is to introduce a way for cultural property transactions to require title history, provenance and findspot information for antiquities. This would give real effect to the law. Without such information, the antiquities trade will continue to evade effective regulation. Think about the California searches from earlier this year, despite a dramatic raid, we have yet to see any charges filed. Though this is heresy to even suggest for many in the archaeological community, this will in my view require compromise and will almost certainly require a liberalization of the trade in some respects.

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

Breaking News: Major Antiquities Investigation

In what may result in the next large-scale antiquities smuggling prosecution in the United States, federal agents today served search warrants on four California museums and an art gallery. Warrants were served on the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Pasadena’s Pacific Asia Museum, the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana and the Mingei International Museum in San Diego. Jason Felch has the story in the LA Times. The Silk Roads Gallery is apparently a major focus of the five-year investigation.

This could be the first major antiquities prosecution in the United States since the conviction of antiquities dealer Fred Schultz. It goes without saying though that this kind of massive investigation is unprecedented. The warrants claim Southeast Asian and Native American artifacts were looted and smuggled into local museums.

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

Napoleon III and the NSPA

Lomi Kriel of the San Antonio Express-News has an interesting account of the FBI’s confiscation of a carbine rifle owned by Napoleon III which was stolen from the Musée de l’Armée during WWII. French authorities saw an advertisement for the weapon on the internet. French authorities contacted interpol, which later involved the FBI’s Art Crime Team.

Napoleon III served as the emperor of France from 1852-70, and this carbine was one of the earliest breech-loading arms produced. Ralph Diaz, the special agent in charge of the FBI’s San Antonio Division said “In the big picture, the FBI doesn’t typically get involved in the pursuit of a rifle… But this weapon is of great historical value to the country of France.” One wonders how the rifle was stolen. I wonder if it was perhaps an American soldier, as was the case with the Quedlinburg treasures.

The FBI did not identify the seller, and it seems he did not know the weapon was stolen when he acquired it for his collection. Federal prosecutors are reviewing the case, but charges are probably unlikely. The rifle was listed for sale at $12,000, a sum which is likely far below what it would have fetched at an open auction.

There are a few interesting things about this case. First, it reveals the extent to which the National Stolen Property Act can impact the trade in art or antiquities. In this case, charges probably will not be filed, but the NSPA allowed authorities to seize the weapon and return it to France. Also, collectors of any object which might have cultural value would be wise to conduct a thorough provenance check, and if a seller cannot or will not provide one, red flags should be raised.

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

More Problems for Marion True and the Getty


The New York Times reports this morning that the Getty Museum has unilaterally decided to break off talks with the Italian Culture Ministry, and return 26 artifacts to Italy. Italy still wants the return of 27 other objects. One of the works is this piece, “Table Support in the Shape of Griffins Attacking a Doe”, dating from the 4th Century BC. The background for these negotiations is the trial of former Getty Curator Marion True and art dealer Robert Hecht in Rome. If Italy is still unsatisfied with the Getty’s decision to repatriate only some of the antiquities, they may try to put pressure on Federal Prosecutors to bring charges against True in the US under the National Stolen Property Act (NSPA).

Greek authorities have decided to follow their Italian counterparts, and have decided to bring charges against True as well, as reported by Reuters. This might be related to the Greek seizures on the Greek Islands known as the Small Cyclades, which took place in April of this year. I discussed them earlier here.

Despite True’s resignation, her aggressive acquisition policy still seems to be causing problems for the Getty, the richest art institution in the world. Italy and Greece are attempting to send a powerful message with these trials: dealing in unprovenanced antiquities will not be tolerated. It remains to be seen though if a conviction will take place in either trial.

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