On May 14, 2013, I attended a public session of the US Cultural Property Advisory Committee (CPAC). CPAC was considering the possible renewal of the current MOU with China. The meeting took place in the Main State Department Building. In addition to CPAC members, speakers and some members of the public, there was also a 5 person delegation from the People’s Republic of China (PRC) present. They were not introduced and did not speak at the public session, though they likely conferred with CPAC privately afterwards.
The following CPAC members were present: James Willis (JW) (Trade); Rosemary Joyce (RJ) (Archaeology); Barbara Kaul (BK) (Public); Marta de la Torre (MT) (Public); Patty Gerstenblith (PG) (Chair-Public); Nancy Wilkie (NW) (Archaeology); Lothar von Falkenhausen (LF) (Archaeology); Katherine Reid (KR) (Museum); Nina Archibal (NA) (Museum). Jane Levine (Trade) was not present. One trade slot remains vacant.
Thirteen (13) individuals spoke. These included: (1) Josh Knerly (AAMD); (2) Thomas Lougham (Clark Art Institute); (3) Dr. Matthew Welch (Minneapolis Institute of Art); (4) Dr. Liu Yang (Minneapolis Institute of Art; (5) Robin Nicholson (Virginia Museum of Fine Arts); (6) Leila Amineddoleh (Executive Director, Lawyer’s Committee for Cultural Heritage Preservation); (7) James Fitzpatrick (representing J.J. Lally & Co., a dealership in fine Chinese antiquities); (8) Peter Tompa (representing International Association of Professional Numismatists and the Professional Numismatists Guild); (9) Francis Allard (Indiana University of Pennsylvania); (10) Loukas Barton (University of Pittsburgh); (11) Roderick Campbell (New York University); (12) Anne Underhill (Yale University); and (13 ) Brian Daniels (Penn Cultural Center).
Josh Knerly (JK) supported the MOU, but suggested that China should be required to provide five (5) to ten (10) year long term loans rather than the current one (1) year loan period. He also noted that China’s ability to control its borders for evaluating its own self-help measures needs to take into account the strength of China as a world power. Quantifiable goals should be set for review within two (2) not the usual five (5) years. The designated list should be more limited. MT asked if there was any data about the impact of restrictions. She observed that the opacity of the antiquities market makes coming to conclusions difficult. KR asked about export licenses. JK indicates that CPAC should ask China for data. NW observed that the lack of an immunity law did not stop loans. JK indicated it did limit loans of certain materials.
Thomas Loughan (TL) indicated that more work needs to be done with extending loan periods. BK asked about the loan period. TL indicated it could be as little as less than five (5) months. JW wondered if a bilateral committee could be established to discuss the loan issue. KR asked about the types of object s that were loaned. It took two shows to get enough “Grade 1” objects to match the Clark’s loan of French paintings.
Matthew Welch (MW) and Liu Yang (LY) expressed concerns about last minute changes in objects to be loaned. This makes it difficult to create a display and a catalogue. Object lists are typically finalized up to two (2) years before with regard to loans from Europe. It is virtually impossible to organize exhibits that draw objects from more than one site because of the bureaucracy involved. JW wondered if tackling the underlying bureaucratic inertia was impossible. KR asked for a specific example. MW indicated his museum had hoped to get an exhibit from Sydney, but at the last moment important objects were removed for another exhibit in Hong Kong. It would be helpful if a contract could be finalized a year in advance. LF asked about loan fees. These are not too bad, but associated expenses can be very high. In response to questions from RJ and PG, MW reiterated that getting loans from single sites was much easier than from multiple sites and changes to an objects list creates chaos when trying to secure immunity from seizure from the US Department of State. MW dismissed KR’s claim that any problems were the result of cultural misunderstandings. MW noted that LY is Chinese and understands the system quite well, but problems have persisted.
Robin Nicholson (RN) discussed a prospective loan with the Palace Museum engineered with the support of Virginia’s governor. The goal of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts is to have a contract in place with the Chinese a year in advance. Political support has been helpful in getting things done. BK asked what sort of artifacts were involved. RN indicated that the display related to 17th c. artifacts and more recent ones.
Leila Amineddoleh (LA) supported the renewal of the MOU. She maintained the fact that 123 countries had signed the 1970 UNESCO Convention satisfied the Cultural Property Implementation Act’s (CPIA’s) concerted international response requirement. She also noted that China had signed cooperative agreements with other countries to deter pillage. BK asked about the internal Chinese market. LA indicated she was not familiar with details. LF asked how the PRC’s cooperation compared with that of other countries that have MOUs with the US. LA maintained that the PRC’s cooperation was good and was comparable to that of Italy. She also noted that the US has shown its cooperation most recently with Cambodia by seeking the forfeiture of a Khmer statute. KR noted that repatriations were part of the mix with Italy. JW noted that the forfeiture proceeding was not related to the MOU with Cambodia.
Jim Fitzpatrick (JF) indicated that it was important for CPAC to adhere to the CPIA’s statutory criteria. He noted that unlike many third world countries, China was quite able to control its borders. Furthermore, the domestic Chinese market is much larger than the US market so that import restrictions could have no impact on looting. It makes no sense for an artifact to be freely available for sale in Beijing but not Boston. There also needs to be self help, but artifacts leave the free ports of Hong Kong and Macao without restriction.
PG asked about supporting data. JF indicated that the statistic that 70% of artifacts in auctions go to Chinese buyers was based on an analysis of names of purchasers. MT opined that the size of the market was not clear because the antiquities market lacks transparency. She also noted that the figures included artifacts that are not currently restricted. JF argued that the Chinese police state should be able to stop looting if it so desired. JF noted that there was a certain resignation in the trade that it is difficult to undue restrictions. JF indicated that the restrictions had deterred sales to museums. JF also stated that as a consequence of the restrictions, much of the Chinese art business has gone abroad. He stated there is a danger that the Chinese art business will go to France as has the trade in Pre-Columbian artifacts.
JW indicated that he has now served on CPAC for 11 years and that he had noted a distinct decline in dealer and collector participation, especially compared to the last time the China MOU was discussed. JW suggested that this decline in comment from dealers and collectors should be taken as a troubling sign for CPAC’s members.
JF agreed, indicating that CPAC’s debate has devolved from the larger issues of import restrictions to listening to complaints from archaeologists and museums about China’s non-compliance with Art. II of the MOU. He stated, however, that numbers of comments received does not change CPAC’s obligation to apply the CPIA properly.
LF stated that looting is illegal in China and asked if the US should be a safe haven for looted goods. JF indicated that closing down the US legal market could not impact looting because of the size of the legal Chinese market.
Peter Tompa (PT) commended China for allowing and encouraging its people to collect common artifacts, but noted that import restrictions only give Chinese businesses—including insiders associated with the country’s rulers—a leg up on the foreign, especially US competition. PT also indicated that China has not met its obligations under Article II. In particular, the PRC has expanded its own export ban to any artifact pre-dating 1911 despite a promise to make legal export easier. The PRC has also failed to crack down on looted artifacts being re-imported into China from Hong Kong and Macao and has also failed to ensure that its own museums do not purchase looted materials. CPAC should recommend that the current MOU be suspended because it Is only hurting US interests. At a minimum, however, CPAC should advocate that cash coins—which exist in the millions if not billions—be delisted. The State Department cannot show these coins only circulated in China because they were widely exported. If anything, these coins should be shared with students as a teaching tool about Chinese history and culture.
PG asked about figures related to the size of the Chinese Art Market. PT confirmed that these figures include both ancient and modern art. NW asked where Chinese coins come from. PT indicted some come from tombs, but others come from deposits or were saved after the coins were no longer used as legal tender. As for coins coming from tombs, they would only be looted incidentally because looters would be primarily motivated to look for far more valuable items. As for coins that were never buried, he cited the attachment to his submission which described a Chinese collector who first learned about ancient Chinese cash coins from breaking open an old toy that made use of such coins as weights. In response to a question about the value of such coins, PT indicated that the value was generally minimal—such coins retail for as little as $1 in the US. NW maintained there was still an inventive to loot them because one of the hoards of 200,000 coins that was described would be worth $200,000. PT indicated that the value was likely much less in China.
Francis Allard (FA) spoke of his experiences excavating in China. He has been offered antiquities in the past but has always declined. Although FA supports the MOU, the Chinese bureaucracy has not made it easy to collaborate with Chinese colleagues. NW wondered whether the MOU could be used to promote the building of more laboratories to conduct research.
Loukas Barton (LB) has excavated in China, Mongolia and Alaska. The Chinese do not allow grave robbing. He also saw a group of looters being driven from town to town as examples. He can’t say for sure, but he thinks the Chinese must be taking effective action against looters because he is no longer being offered antiquities. The Chinese punitive system may be having an effect. LB specializes in pre-history. His request for a permit to collaborate with Chinese colleagues in his study of prehistoric China was denied without explanation in 2012. LB refused to speculate as to the reason. [CPO wonders whether the Chinese cultural bureaucracy does not want foreigners delving too far into China’s prehistory. Is it possible they are concerned that the results might undercut China’s historic claim of Han dominion over the land?] RJ asked about looting. LB indicated he saw evidence of tomb robbing, but where tombs had already been eroded. He has also seen shovel pits. LF expressed frustration with the Chinese denial of FA’s permit. LB indicated he was told by Chinese colleagues that it was due to a “political problem,” but they did not elaborate. There are other annoyances as the Chinese ban on the use of GPS devices. NW recounted how she was denied a permit as well in the 1980’s so the problem is not a new one.
Rod Campbell (RC) indicated that looting was still an issue in China. Bronzes and oracle bones are particular targets. RC indicated that the best Bronze Age sites have been looted. The MOU has helped encourage student exchanges. RC has been involved in salvage archaeology. Connections are important to work in China.
Anne Underhill (AU) suggested that the renewal of the MOU is an opportunity to make improvements. Looting has declined but some is still taking place. There should be an increase in cultural exchange. AU acknowledges there is a large internal market for Chinese artifacts, but the US should keep its import restrictions in place to demonstrate its good will to the Chinese and act as a good role model. There needs to be more of an effort made as to Hong Kong and Macao. Museum loans should be made more transparent. NW indicated there needs to be more Chinese language programs. In response to a question from PG, AH indicated that collaboration had improved.
Brian Daniels (BD) indicated that China had complied with Art. II of the MOU. It has improved regulation of its own market. In 2009, it created an antiquities police force. In 2011, it created an interministerial group to examine looting. There have been proposals to harmonize export controls with Hong Kong and Macao though work needs to be done. There has been more scrutiny of artifacts leaving China for these free ports. China has instituted a free museum policy. NA asked if cultural exchange ebbed and flowed according to diplomatic relations. BD indicated that he was not aware of any changes depending on diplomatic relations and in fact cultural relations are always beneficial. MT asked about policing. There were 764 cases in 2009 and 1210 cases in 2011. BD did not want to speculate as to the increase.
JW asked about Tibet to all participants. TL indicated there is some collaboration with Tibetan interests. PT indicated that the Chinese government has recently been criticized in the press for bulldozing large swaths of Lhasa, Tibet’s capital, in the name of promoting tourism.
The public meeting then closed.