U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) have repatriated a group of fossils valued at some $30,000 to China. See: http://www.cnn.com/2009/TECH/science/09/14/china.fossils.returned/index.html?eref=igoogle_cnn See also: http://www.ice.gov/pi/nr/0909/090914washington.htm
The basis for the return is unclear. CNN quotes John Morton, an ICE official, as stating,
The attempt to remove them from China ran up against a network of national and international customs laws that are in place to protect against the theft of cultural property.
Nevertheless, I suspect that Customs may have detained the artifacts for failure to declare them properly and that the importers then abandoned them rather than fight the seizure.
This would be typical. I understand most artifacts that are repatriated are abandoned without a decision from a neutral fact finder. Contesting a customs forfeiture takes substantial time and money. Even an importer with a strong case may not consider it worth pursuing. For instance, while the fossils' estimated value of $30,000 may sound significant, that amount must be balanced against the costs of retaining a lawyer (which could easily exceed that amount), the time and effort involved, and the fear that civil customs liability may possibly lead to criminal charges. Indeed, when faced with such realities, most will consider abandonment to be the only rational option.
This all seems quite unfair to me. From my perspective, it all seems tilted too heavily in favor of the government and against the rights of an individual. Though the system offers due process, such process carries little practical meaning if the costs of exercising it are too great.
Certainly, government press releases tell only one side of the story. The importers that know the other side remain silent for fear of liability. Meanwhile, is it possible that fossils like those repatriated here are as openly available in China itself as is ancient art? See http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1656527,00.html If so, what interests do their repatriation actually serve?