The New York Times generally analyzes issues pretty well. Not, however, the recent call by a politically connected group associated with the Archaeological Institute of America and George Washington University seeking to effectively ban the sale of Egyptian antiquities. Before endorsing such a ban, one would have hoped that the New York Times editorial board would have at least considered the following:
1. The accuracy of reports of looting, particularly given the prior pronouncements of Egyptian Government officials on the subject. The Times editorial assumes thefts from the Malawi National Museum in Minya justify a clamp down on American collectors, but more accurate reports place the blame on discontented locals not "cultural racketeers" and "global connoisseurs" as Egyptian authorities claim. Moreover, it appears what was not destroyed by locals angry at their own government has been largely returned. Under the circumstances, the sophisticated editors of the New York Times should have asked if the MOU is based on a legitimate need or whether it is actually a ploy by Egypt's military government to help gain some much needed legitimacy.
2. The importance of rule of law. Rule of law is not a priority for Egypt's military rulers, but it should be for our own State Department. Thus, it should be troubling that according to the New York Times editorial, the State Department has already agreed to "relaxing standards that currently require customs officials to have precise information
in hand about a stolen item before they can act." What then about the legal requirements Congress imposed under the Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act-- including CPAC review and the opportunity for public comment? Instead, we have what sounds to be a prejudged decision, made behind closed doors, based solely on the input of politically connected academic insiders and the representatives of Egypt's generals. Shouldn't that be a concern for the New York Times, and indeed something for its staff of world-class reporters to investigate?
3. The impact of any restrictions on the ability of Americans to continue to enjoy Egyptian artifacts of the sort widely and legally collected both here and abroad since the 19th c. It's bad enough that import restrictions effectively ban the entry of many artifacts of too modest value or importance to have been properly documented. But what are we to make of calls "to halt the sale of any antiquity lacking a stamp of approval from the
government in Cairo?" One might wonder how such a proposal would be administered, but for the well-founded suspicion that Egypt's nationalistic cultural bureaucrats think that virtually everything of Egyptian origin rightly belongs to the Egyptian State. So perhaps such calls are indeed tantamount to an antique ivory style ban, another Obama Administration initiative which has come under fire for straying much too far from a targeted response to the present-day killing of elephants for profit. Antiquities are not endangered species and its wrong to assume collectors who have preserved, studied and displayed them for centuries should pay the price for today's problems created in Egypt by the Egyptians themselves.