Friday, August 27, 2010

Some Additional Thoughts on the Greek MOU

Greece is suffering from a sovereign debt crisis largely of its own making. By necessity, the Greek Government is cutting funding for museums and archaeological projects. So, why choose now to ask the U.S. Government to impose import restrictions on cultural artifacts stretching from the Neolithic period to the hated Turkish occupation? A cynic might wonder if this is an attempt to divert attention away from these harsh realities, particularly for those in the hard hit cultural sector.

Be that as it may, the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs of our own State Department-- which has probably known about the Greek request for months-- seems now intent on ramming through yet another controversial request for import restrictions before the end of the year. Despite complaints about the short comment period for the Italian MOU, another short comment period (to 9/22) has been mandated here.

State has sought to justify the Greek request by publishing what purports to be a summary on its website. (See below.) Most of the document is a Greek history lesson. There is some discussion about looting, Greek cultural activities and police efforts.

The request, however, does not answer some fundamental questions.

First, what specific artifacts does Greece seek import restrictions on? (We are told looters seek out pottery, jewelry, coins and statuary, but that is not the same as notice to the public about what Greece seeks to restrict.) In particular, is Greece only asking for restrictions on artifacts for which there is undisputed scholarly evidence that they are only found in Greece, or are the Greeks seeking restrictions on anything and everything that conceivably might be Greek?

Second, why does Greece seek restrictions on artifacts from thousands of years of its history? Are they serious, or is this some bureaucratic gambit that will allow the State Department to later claim they scaled back the request in an effort to compromise with opponents? (This is precisely what happened with the even broader Chinese request.)

Third, how does Greece square asking American collectors to show the provenance of the artifacts they import (particularly coins) when there is no similar requirement placed on Greek collectors (of which there are many)? I understand that Greek collectors must register their collections and technically only have "possession" not "ownership" of them, but this is not the same thing.


Unknown said...
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Unknown said...

Dear Mr Tompa:

Despite following the CPAC links you provide, I have to confess I don't understand the legal ramifications of the new Greek or the Italian MOU? Have you explained these in a post I haven't found? What do these MOU's requires US collectors importing Greek & Roman coins from a Euro-auctions in the UK or Switzerland to prove? Can this burden of proof of proof be met for any ancients? What about domestic US auctions of ancients? Could the Greek or Italian or US gov't intervene and seize "contraband"? I don't understand, as a I said, the ramifications of the MOU's.

Cultural Property Observer said...

Phil- This has been covered elsewhere on this blog, but import restrictions as applied by US Customs give Customs authority to seize and repatriate artifacts not accompanied by an export permit or "satisfactory evidence" that they left the country for which import restrictions were granted before the date of the restrictions. Our concern is that Customs will use this authority to seize Greek or Roman coins coming from third countries like the UK. This is in fact what has happened in the ACCG Test case. Unprovenanced Chinese and Cypriot coins without a ownership history were seized by US Customs. These import restrictions do not apply to coins already in the US, but all artifacts come into the country conditionally and are subject to later seizure if they were imported against the law.