In Wednesday’s New York Times, we learn that the US State Department has delayed a ruling on whether to limit the import of Chinese antiquities. The delay is unprecedented, and the State Department has been expected to issue the decision this fall. A number of interesting things are playing out here. Foremost is the very public battle between archaeologists and antiquities dealers.
First, a bit of background: The United States passed a law in 1983 called the Cultural Property Implementation Act (CPIA). It fulfilled America’s obligation as a signatory of the 1970 UNESCO World Heritage Convention (UNESCO Convention). The CPIA allows the US to ban the importation of antiquities from certain nations, via bilateral agreements. As part of the CPIA regime, an advisory board comprised of dealers and academics evaluates requests for bilateral agreements. The State Department has never refused a request like China’s. In recent years, 11 nations have asked for and been granted import restrictions of artifacts, including Italy, Mali, Cambodia, Cyprus and seven countries in Central and South America. Until China’s recent request, the State Department has never taken longer than a couple of years to come to a decision.
The CPIA establishes standards which a source nation must meet in order to qualify for import restrictions. These include showing that the nation has policed the antiquities market domestically, showing other countries are limiting the trade in the objects, and providing evidence that dampening the US market in these objects would significantly impact the effort to prevent pillaging and looting. This image is of an early Chinese tomb. Archaeologists are very critical of the art market, as it buys and sells objects which are looted from these sites. Unfortunately when the illicit excavation takes place, the archaeological record is lost.
Apparently, China’s request is quite broad. It deals with art and coins which are less than 250 years old, which is the threshold age of objects under the 1983 CPIA. There was one public hearing in February, 2005 in which the public was allowed comment. However the State Department has given no information as to how it may reach its decision.
The delay is troubling, and it may simply be a result of the market lobby exerting its influence. If the Cultural Property Advisory Committee and the State Department end up restricting the import of these Chinese objects, art dealers may consider challenging the ruling in court. However, they would have a great deal of trouble successfully overcoming the restrictions, as Administrative Agencies are given a great deal of deference by courts. It should be interesting to see how this plays out, and any updates I come across will be published here.