Thursday, April 17, 2014

“Done Deal” or Not— Say NO to the Dictators and Oppose the Egyptian MOU

Press reports suggest that the State Department has already promised Egypt’s military government that it will impose import restrictions on its behalf.  Still, if one feels strongly about their continued ability to collect Egyptian artifacts and/or historical coins, CPO believes they should comment on the website.  Why? Because silence will only be spun as acquiesce by US and Egyptian cultural bureaucracies as well as the archaeological lobby with an ax to grind against collectors.

A.    The Law

The Cultural Property Implementation Act (“CPIA”) contains significant procedural and substantive constraints on the executive authority to impose import restrictions on cultural goods.  “Regular” restrictions may only be applied to archaeological artifacts of “cultural significance” “first discovered within” and “subject to the export control” of a specific UNESCO State Party.  They must be part of a “concerted international response” of other market nations, and can only be applied after less onerous “self-help” measures are tried.  They must also be consistent with the general interest of the international community in the interchange of cultural property among nations for scientific, cultural, and educational purposes.

“Emergency restrictions” are narrower.  They focus on material of particular importance, but no “concerted international response” is necessary.  The material must be a “newly discovered type” or from a site of “high cultural significance” that is in danger of “crisis proportions.” Alternatively, the object must be of a civilization, the record of which is in jeopardy of “crisis proportions,” and restrictions will reduce the danger of pillage.

The Cultural Property Advisory Committee (“CPAC”) is to provide the executive with useful advice about this process. The CPIA contemplates that CPAC is to recommend whether import restrictions are appropriate as a general matter and also specifically whether they should be placed on particular types of cultural goods.  

In the past, CPAC has recommended against import restrictions on coins.  Initially those recommendations were followed, but beginning with the renewal of Cypriot import restrictions in 2007, this has changed.  Now, there are restrictions on coins made in Cyprus, China, Italy, Greece and Bulgaria.
Import restrictions make it impossible for Americans to legally import collectors’ coins widely and legally available worldwide.   Foreign sellers are typically unwilling or unable to certify the coin in question (which can retail as little as $1) left a specific UNESCO State Party before restrictions were imposed as required by the CPIA and U.S. Customs and Border Protection rules.   Restrictions have drastically limited Americans’ abilities to purchase historical coins from abroad and have negatively impacted the cultural understanding and people to people contacts collecting fosters. 

B.     The Request

Egyptian artifacts have been actively and legally collected here and abroad since the early 19th c.  Egyptians also actively and legally collected objects from their past until a series of military governments cracked down on the practice.  Finally, in 1983, the Egyptian Government of Hosni Mubarak declared all such objects state property.  Most common and less valuable Egyptian artifacts, like coins and amulets have lost their provenance over time.  Even many more valuable pieces have lost any provenance information as well.  There simply was no reason to keep such information in most cases.  

There certainly has been looting in Egypt, as has been the case since ancient times.  However, there is a real question whether there is an “emergency” of “crisis proportions” and, if so, if any “emergency” is of Egypt’s own making.   During a recent public forum meant to publicize the need for import restrictions, Egyptologist Monica Hanna conceded that government officials were intimately involved in illicit antiquities trafficking, that much damage is due to urban encroachment onto archaeological sites, and that common people don’t respect their past because they believe it belongs to Egypt’s abusive military government and not them.  This, of course, is the real root of Egypt’s problems.  Since prior military governments made the trade in all antiquities illegal, artifacts have been either illegally traded or devalued so much that they are either destroyed or dumped in landfills.

Archaeological groups have been seriously lobbying for import restrictions on Egyptian cultural artifacts since at least 2011.   The Arab Spring Revolution, the fall Egyptian antiquities Pharaoh Zahi Hawass, an ongoing bribery investigation involving Hawass and National Geographic (which had joined the lobbying effort), and the rise and fall of Muslim Brotherhood President Mohammed Morsi derailed things for a time, but Egypt’s new military government has now pressed the issue, probably because it believes that a MOU with the United States that recognizes its control over Egypt’s past will give it much needed legitimacy.   Indeed, from the Generals’ perspective, what better timing than to link a MOU to orchestrated elections in late May that are expected to anoint Egyptian Army Chief Abdel Fattah el-Sissi,  President.  

The State Department certainly seems to have been treating the Egyptian Government’s request as requiring an immediate, positive response. Egypt apparently made its formal request in mid-March.  A New York Times Editorial, dated March 20, 2014, states that the US Government immediately agreed to this demand.   See “Egypt's Heritage Plundered Anew” (March 20, 2014) ("The United States — a leading buyers’ market for Egyptian antiquities — was quick to respond, with the State Department promising cooperation by relaxing standards that currently require customs officials to have precise information in hand about a stolen item before they can act.").   Egyptian press reports then placed Assistant Secretary of State Evan Ryan, the decision maker on any import restrictions, in Egypt to discuss the details in early April.   Dr. Hanna was then given a platform to make her case at the Wilson Center, a prestigious think tank associated with the U.S. Government’s Smithsonian Institution.  Two days later, on April 16, 2014, a CPAC hearing was announced for June 2, 2014, presumably to provide legal “cover” for this farce. 

Certainly, the public notice itself tells nothing of the basis for the request and even whether Egypt seeks “regular” or “emergency” restrictions.   All we know is the June 2, 2014 date for CPAC’s open session, that Egypt seeks an import ban on artifacts that date from pre-historic to Ottoman times, and that public comments are due no later than 11:59 PM (Eastern Standard Time) on May 14, 2014.  For more background, see

C.     What You Can Do

Admittedly, all the evidence points to the matter being already decided—no matter what the CPIA says, what the facts really are, and what American citizens or others interested in collecting Egyptian artifacts may think.  Still, to remain silent is to give the Egyptian generals, the cultural bureaucrats and archaeologists with an ax to grind against collectors exactly what they want-- the claim that any MOU is not controversial. So, to submit comments concerning the proposed MOU, go to the Federal rulemaking Portal and enter Docket No. DOS-2014-0008 and by all means speak your mind. 

What should you say?  Provide a brief, polite explanation about why the request should be denied or limited.  Indicate to CPAC how restrictions will negatively impact your business and/or the cultural understanding and people to people contacts collecting provides.   Coin collectors should add that it’s typically impossible to assume a particular coin was “first discovered within” and “subject to the export control” of Egypt and that Egyptian historical coins are very common and widely and freely available for sale elsewhere, particularly in Europe.  And, of course, feel free to mention any concerns you might have about government transparency, whether this is a real “emergency” of “crisis proportions,” and how the State Department has generally handled this request.   Finally, you don’t have to be an American citizen to comment—you just need to be concerned enough to spend twenty or so minutes to express your views on-line. 

1 comment:

Cultural Property Observer said...

CPO will not accept comments to this particular blog post. If you feel strongly about this matter one way (or the other), please make your comments known to the State Department's Cultural Property Advisory Committee as outlined above.