"Like water on a leaky roof"

That’s how James Cuno describes the 1970 UNESCO Convention in a Q&A with Science News.  He makes some correct criticisms I think, but I differ with him on the ultimate remedy for these difficulties.  I think we need to start with an open antiquities trade in which the history of objects is published, open to the public, and even enlists 3rd parties evaluate the propriety of acquisitions.

What was the effect of the UNESCO 1970 treaty on looting of archaeological sites?
It hasn’t stopped looting. In fact, from what we hear, looting is increasing.  Looting is not a leisure pastime. People don’t decide to become a looter rather than being a lawyer. They are desperate people doing desperate things. In situations of a failed economy, a failed government, the absence of civil society, internecine warfare, sectarian violence, drought — whatever — conditions emerge that can create pressures for looting. Simply criminalizing the illegal acquisition of goods won’t stop looting. It hasn’t stopped the trade in drugs or trade in stolen materials of any kind.
So an important artifact with dubious provenance for sale on the open market, available for anyone else to buy, isn’t available to foreign researchers?
Right. So fewer and fewer things are entering into the public domain.  These export constraints are creating black markets. And like water on a leaky roof, looted artifacts are finding the path of least resistance to a buyer somewhere. I’ve heard they’re going to the Arab Emirates and Asia. What I can tell you is that they’re not coming to museums in the United States and Europe [which adhere to UNESCO 1970].

Just because other nations and buyers may be buying looted objects does not I think justify their purchase by North American institutions.  There are flaws with the Convention, but it has produced some important changes in heritage law and policy.  It has helped elevate the importance of national ownership declarations, and it has raised the general profile of heritage policy.  It has not yet produced a perfect regulatory framework, and though the convention has some drawbacks, we could also point to lackluster implementation or enforcement by many nations at the market end. 

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

Student Comment on American Cultural Heritage Law

Katherine D. Vitale has posted on SSRN her Student Comment, The War on Antiquities: United States Law and Foreign Cultural Property, 84 Notre Dame L. R. 101 (2009). 

She criticizes the general trend of American cultural heritage policy, and is far too kind I think to museums and antiquities dealers generally.  She has some very interesting things to say about the AAMD Guidelines, and does a very good job putting the recent California searches in context, perhaps helping to explain why a year has elapsed with little apparent progress.  

From the Abstract:

The use of the National Stolen Property Act and Archaeological Resources Protection Act as mechanisms to protect cultural property taken from a foreign state through prosecution of individuals who buy, sell, and otherwise deal in such property is in direct tension with the Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act (“CPIA”), a statute enacted in accordance with an international treaty to which the United States is a party. This Note explores how criminal liability under United States law for museum officials and others who acquire art, archaeological materials, and especially antiquities, originating in foreign nations conflicts with CPIA’s treatment of foreign cultural property. Part I discusses the principle of protection of cultural property in international law and the manifestation of this principle in the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property (“1970 UNESCO Convention”). Part II examines the 1970 UNESCO Convention’s influence on United States civil law and policy regarding foreign cultural property, and on the acquisitions policies of international and domestic museums. Part III discusses criminal penalties under both the National Stolen Property Act and the Archaeological Resources Protection Act for those who knowingly acquire stolen foreign cultural property. Part IV analyzes the conflict between policies on foreign cultural property followed by the United States and domestic museums and the application of criminal penalties in art-trafficking cases. In addition, this Part explores the consequences of the conflict for both the United States and individuals, and suggests resolutions to the conflict through law. Finally, Part V concludes that in order for the United States to fulfill its obligation under the 1970 UNESCO Convention, it must stop conducting a war on antiquities-and those who acquire them.

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

UNESCO Wants HMS Victory Preserved

Yesterday UNESCO released a statement concerning the announced discovery of the wreck of the HMS Victory by Odyssey Marine:

“I am delighted that such an exceptional example of underwater heritage has been located. The cultural and scientific value of this artefact is considerable,” declared Koïchiro Matsuura, Director-General of UNESCO. “In the spirit of the Convention adopted by UNESCO in 2001, I trust that all parties concerned will take the necessary measures to ensure this important vestige of British naval history is safeguarded and given appropriate attention, not used for commercial gain.”

The statement stands in stark contrast to this week’s earlier interview by the company’s own Greg Stemm.  UNESCO and the relevant Underwater Heritage Convention both strongly disapprove of the use of underwater sites for commercial gain.  Few of the World’s major nations have signed on to this proposition.  The UK Government would seem to believe that scientific study can be accomplished with commercial exploitation, or at least that the commercial value may outweigh a more thorough study. 

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

Peru Files Suit Against Yale

Last Friday, in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, Peru quietly filed suit against Yale University seeking the return of a number of objects from in and around Machu Picchu. The objects were excavated and removed to the United States by Hiram Bingam in the early part of the 20th Century. This is the culmination of a long process between Peru and Yale, in which the parties had seemingly agreed to a beneficial compromise for both. The suit will of course be interesting to unfold, as it would seem to push the boundaries for a court resolution of a dispute over objects which were removed from Peru in the waning years of the imperial age.

The suit was expected, as Peru had made the tentative decision last month to bring suit. This after what had appeared to be a happy resolution to the dispute, with Yale offering a very substantial settlement including an international traveling exhibition and the construction of a new museum and research center in Peru in exchange for a new 99-year lease on the objects.

That deal fell through, and now Peru has decided to seek redress in Federal Court.

I’ve had a chance to quickly read over the complaint and I see a number of interesting issues:

  • The degree to which the 1970 UNESCO Convention may apply — as an international instrument and policy imperative.
  • If there will be further development of the requirements neeeded to establish national ownership over an object. The complaint cites an 1893 Decree which prohibited removal of objects absent special permission from the government. A potential issue may be what kind of special permission –if any — Hiram Bingham had from Peruvian authorities at the time.
  • Also, there will likely be an interesting back and forth over whether Peru’s suit is timely. The complaint argues that there has only recently been a demand and refusal of the objects, though there appears to be the possibility of a strong laches defense for Yale given the time which has passed since the objects left Peru. Yale may have a strong defense by arguing it has held the objects in a transparent way, and Peru has impinged Yale’s rights by waiting so long to bring a claim.
  • Finally, there may be interesting conflicts of law issues which arise.

A win for Peru in court may set a precedent for other future claims from the imperial age, and may extend further the window for nations of origin to seek the repatriation and restitution of objects. This would be a powerful legal option going forward, in which the pendulum has seemingly already swung back to favor nations of origin already.

However even if the court dispute is unsuccessful, Peru may still have a good outcome if they can sway public opinion at home or abroad. I have more questions than answers at this point. I wonder to what extent Peru may be seeking a public shaming of Yale in the hopes of punishing them or forcing them to apologize for taking these objects away. It should be noted that the objects themselves are primarily interesting for their intellectual value. They are not prized for their inherent beauty or value. Their primary purpose would seem to be to assist in research and other pursuits. One wonders if Peru would be able to perform this research function as well as Yale University? Or, if those intellectual pursuits might have been best advanced if Peru had been able to reach an agreement with Yale which would have resulted in the construction of a research center in Peru. Isn’t the ‘star’ of the ancient city the well-preserved ruins themselves?

The initial complaint is here ($).

Hat Tip: Peter Tompa.

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