Wednesday, April 30, 2008

"Emergency" Import Restrictions on Iraqi Archaeological and Ethnological Artifacts Imposed

In an announcement presumably timed to coincide with the 5th Anniversary of the looting of the Iraq Museum, US Customs belatedly published "emergency import restrictions" on Iraqi archaeological and ethnological artifacts. The Federal Register notice that includes a designated list of restricted material can be found here:

Legislation rushed through Congress in a hysterical atmosphere is likely to be ill-conceived, and the so-called "Emergency Protection for Iraqi Cultural Antiquities Act of 2004" is no exception. The legislation provided discretion to the State Department and Customs to impose so-called emergency restrictions, but without providing for the usual public comment and any review or recommendations of the Cultural Property Advisory Committee. The four years it took State and Customs to actually implement the law (during which time more general and less controversial restrictions were in place under other statutory authority) belies the Federal Register's claim that "providing prior notice and public procedure for these regulations would be impracticable, unnecessary, and contrary to the public interest because immediate action is necessary...." (See p. 23341.)

In addition, despite the claim that the Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs made the requisite findings that "an emergency condition existed" (p. 2334), there is no evidence that the decision maker actually weighed all the necessary statutory criteria before making the requisite findings under the Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act Section 304. To do so, the decision maker is supposed find a number of facts, including that the material subject to restriction is "a newly discovered type of material" "of importance for the understanding of the history of mankind" "identifiable as coming from any site" "of high cultural significance" or "a part of the remains of a particular culture or civilization, the record of which is in jeopardy of pillage""of crisis proportions." That such findings could have seriously been made with respect to virtually all types of Iraqi cultural artifacts, including even 20th c. paintings and coins, should come as a surprise to everyone but members of the archaeology community who think there should be state control over anything and everything up to and including materials from the 20th c.

It is also troubling that such broad restrictions have been announced just as knowledgeable observers without an axe to grind have acknowledged that looting of archaeological sites is tailing off and few Iraqi materials are actually reaching Western markets. For more, see

The best that can be said about this regulatory monstrosity is that under the "Emergency Restrictions on Iraqi Cultural Antiquities Act of 2004" these restrictions should lapse on or before September 29, 2009. Of course, before that time, I expect that there will be a concerted effort to extend the restrictions for another five years with or without the facts necessary to do so under the law.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Tariq Aziz Goes on Trial for Executions of Merchants

The BBC reports that Tariq Aziz, Saddam's former Deputy PM, will go on trial for the executions of merchants accused of profiteering during a period of international sanctions against Iraq.

Why is this relevant to cultural property issues? Well, the urbane Aziz served as point man in Saddam's strategy to break international sanctions against his regime. This included successful efforts to recruit support against the sanctions from members of the Western archaeological community, most notably by sponsoring a conference on the "Birth of Writing" in 2001. I can locate little about this conference other than this Chicago Tribune article that can be found on National Geographic's web site:

In any event, the exact nature and extent of Western archaeologists' relationship with Saddam's regime has yet to be fully disclosed to the public. Yet, many archaeologists most closely associated with Iraq have attacked the motives and actions of the U.S. Government, the U.S. Military, American collectors, dealers and museums in the strongest terms.

My feeling is that their continuing expressions of moral outrage must be judged in context. Learning how their relationship with Saddam's regime may have colored the narrative presented to the public and press is important to assessing many claims such the suggestion that the theft of many of the most important artifacts from the Iraq Museum was organized at the behest of Western collectors. Hopefully, a journalist or academic will look into this issue further, perhaps in time for the sixth anniversary of the looting of the Iraq Museum.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Greek Cultural Heritage Crusader Runs Afoul of Greek Cultural Property Law

The AIA's Archaeology Magazine online news recently reported that, "Costas Carras, founder of the Hellenic Society for the Protection of the Environment and Cultural Heritage, has been accused of owning illegal artifacts. 'It is ludicrous that authorities should attack the one person who has spent a lifetime preserving the items and ideas that the authorities themselves are supposed to protect,' said former politician Stefanos Manos.'" For more, see

This is only the latest dust-up within the Greek cultural property world. Back in January, Greece appointed a new Secretary General of its Culture Ministry following a sex and potential corruption scandal that culminated in the attempted suicide of the prior Secretary General.
For more, see

In my opinion, these scandals seriously undercut the Greek Government's moral authority to demand repatriation of Greek artifacts long held abroad. One would hope this would lead to some soul searching on such issues, but something tells me these scandals will only encourage Greek cultural bureaucrats to ramp up repatriation efforts as a diversion from problems at home. Indeed, the Greek government has recently announced its plans for even more aggressive repatriation efforts and even more stringent domestic cultural property laws.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

LCCHP Program on the Fate of Cultural Property in Times of Armed Conflict -- Interesting, but Incomplete

What do you get when you go to a program sponsored by an interest group founded by a well known lawyer for the archaeological community, a law firm that specializes in restitution of Nazi spoils and a well known and respected historical preservation group? Answer: a well done, but incomplete view of cultural property issues and conflicts from WW II to the Second Gulf War.

The underlying theme of the program put together by the Lawyer's Committee for Cultural Heritage Preservation was one of contrasts. Unlike our nation's heroic preservation efforts in WW II, Donald Rumsfeld and the Bush administration dropped the ball in protecting Iraq's cultural artifacts in Gulf War II. We, therefore, need to make preservation of cultural property in conflict a high priority. In particular, the US must accede to the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property.

Certainly such a narrative has some popular appeal, but I am not sure it is entirely accurate. To the sponsor's credit, they did invite several panelists associated with the military who did question aspects of it. Sure, the "monument men" (and women) of WW II did a good job of gathering artifacts looted by the Nazis, but they were very few in number (only about 50), particularly given the immense size of the invading force and the territory they needed to cover. Moreover, the WW II military benefited from being able to draft knowledgeable people, particularly from the museum world. In contrast, today's military is much smaller and there does not seem to be many academics willing to volunteer to serve as modern "monuments men" or women.

The military panelists were somewhat less forthright on issues of targeting. Sure, they highlighted the fact that US forces did their utmost to avoid targeting cultural treasures in Gulf War II. On the other hand, they failed to acknowledge that WW II is filled with examples of priceless cultural treasures being bombed to oblivion. Monte Cassino and Dresden are only two such architectural and artistic treasures that have been forever changed as a result. Thus, in my opinion, our armed force's record in WW II is simply not as good as was advertised nor is the record of our forces in Gulf War II anywhere as bad as is often portrayed.

While all this is well and good, the program predictably glossed over any fact that might call into question the archaeological community's support for the cultural nationalism of source countries. Thus, no one dared suggest that the looting of the Iraq Museum may have been at least in part motivated by the Shia majority's desire to strike at the Baathist regime's blatant use of the symbolism of Iraq's past to justify its tyrannical rule. Moreover, while one panelist spoke eloquently of the destruction of Croat and Bosnian cultural monuments in the Balkans in the 1990's, no one connected these depredations to the hyper-nationalism of the Serbian government. One instance recounted was particularly vicious. Serbian militia blew up a historic mosque in Foca, Bosnia and used the rubble to cover a mass grave of Bosnian Muslim victims from the town. The intent was clear. Ethnic cleansing topped off with cultural cleansing. With such facts, it is hard to ignore the way governments use and abuse artifacts of the past for their own political purposes. Yet, the program managed to do just that.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

James Cuno on Cultural Nationalism

James Cuno, the Director of the Art Institute of Chicago, has a forthcoming book entitled, "Who Owns Antiquity? Museums and the Battle Over Our Ancient Heritage." For more about it, see Yale Global OnLine Cuno is a powerful advocate for museums in the cultural property debate. He contends that source country nationalism is ultimately detrimental not only to world-wide appreciation of ancient cultures, but to the very well-being of the artifacts that such nationalistic governments purport to protect. I'm sure his book will be an interesting read and an important contribution to the cultural property debate.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Rome Lives-- The Pope Visits DC

The Pope's "triumphal procession" through streets lined with neo-classical architecture in his chariot a.k.a. the Pope Mobile. The use of Latin in the Mass at the National's Stadium. The wearing of vestments and the use of liturgical instruments similar to those seen in late Roman art. All reminded me that the echos of ancient Rome live on even today.

Rome was a multi-cultural Empire that spanned across much of Europe, the Mediterranean basin and the Middle East. The descendants of those who lived under the Empire now live as far away as North and South America. Yet, some Italian politicians encouraged by some members of the archaeological community want to lay claim to any unprovenanced Roman artifact as property of the modern Italian nation state. This seems silly to me on its face, but this view has certainly made some inroads in the press and the popular consciousness, particularly when pitched in stories about "looting," avaricious collectors, dealers and museum curators. Hopefully, over time, the popularity of such narrow, nationalistic sentiments will recede and the view that Rome and its culture belongs to everyone will prevail.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Arrivederci Culture Minister Rutelli-- Is It Now Finally Time for a Rational Cultural Property Policy in Italy?

The electoral defeat of Italian Culture Minister Rutelli's Center Left Coalition by flamboyant billionaire politician Silvio Berlusconi's Center Right Coalition demonstrates that efforts to divert the public's attention from political and economic problems with nationalistic exhibits of repatriated "trophy art" like the "Nostoi" exhibit simply do not work in the long run.

If so, Italy may have also in a sense come full circle on the issue. Indeed, it has been suggested that the investigation that culminated in the Nostoi exhibit was at least in part a politically motivated effort to embarrass the last Berlusconi government, which, after all, had taken some steps to change Italy's outdated and ineffective cultural property laws in favor of ones that recognized the obvious-- that many otherwise law abiding Italians hold unregistered antiquities. If nothing else, this theory may help explain why an obscure Italian Magistrate decided to press his investigation decades after the antiquities were illicitly excavated and some ten years after after poloroids picturing antiquities in several American Museums were discovered along with other illicit antiquities in a warehouse in Switzerland.

In any event, the Italian electorate will now rightly expect the new Berlusconi Government to tackle Italy's immense economic problems, but after that, perhaps the new Government will again consider reforms to Italy's outdated and unrealistic cultural property laws. Hopefully in doing so, Italy will recognize that the State and the Archaeological community are simply incapable of being good stewards to everything and anything "old" and that collectors deserve to be recognized as the best custodians for at least some types of "cultural property."

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Tibet, the Olympics and the Chinese Request for Import Restrictions

Chinese repression of Tibetan culture. Ethnic Tibetans burning Han Chinese businesses because they view Chinese immigrants as colonizers. Political protests against the Olympic torch in Paris and San Francisco. What does all this have to do with cultural property? Well, there has been much speculation that the State Department plans to announce long delayed import restrictions on Chinese cultural artifacts-- including those from Tibet in time for the Olympics. Will news of Chinese repression delay those plans again lest the State Department be seen to be "rewarding China" so soon after harshly repressing dissent? Or, will the restrictions still be announced, perhaps to soften the supposed "blow" of other diplomatic protests against the Chinese action? We should know soon.

What is amazing is that the archaeological community seems to be completely oblivious to Chinese repression of Tibetan culture. The Dalai Lama himself has recognized that collectors have helped preserve Tibetan cultural artifacts from destruction, particularly in the aftermath of the Chinese invasion of Tibet and the destruction of many of its monasteries. Yet, at the 2005 CPAC hearing on Chinese import restrictions, members of the archaeological community supported tight Chinese government control over Tibetan artifacts. Why did anti-collector ideology win out even in this circumstance? Was that position based on principle or the fear that crossing the Chinese might limit the opportunities for American archaeologists excavating in China?

China is a great nation, and it has come a long way since President Nixon's visit in 1972, but it still has much to learn about human rights including religious and personal freedoms. Kowtowing to the Chinese Government on the issue of control of virtually all cultural artifacts from China-- including those from Tibet-- will send nothing but a wrong message.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

5th Anniversary of the Looting of the Iraq Museum

It is right and proper to mark the 5th anniversary of the looting of the Iraq Museum, but it is wrong to use that anniversary to propagate highly inflammatory claims aimed at collectors, dealers in antiquities and museums when very little hard information has surfaced during intervening years to support them. These include the following: (1) That wealthy collectors contracted with looters to seek out the best items from the Museum’s collections; (2) That material looted from the Iraq Museum and archaeological sites has been shipped to collectors in the United States and Europe in quantity; and (3) That looting of archaeological sites is a major funding source for al Qaeda terrorists.

Cultural Property Observer believes that full coverage of this anniversary should include a sober assessment of the truth of these allegations. It would also be interesting to learn more about the following issues: (1) The nature and extent of the collaboration between Western archaeologists and Saddam Hussein’s regime, and how that may have colored the narrative of events as portrayed in the media; (2) Whether any pieces missing from the Iraq Museum were in fact removed before or in the immediate aftermath of the U.S. invasion by members of the Baath Party and/or corrupt Iraq Museum employees; (3) The nature and extent of the looting of archaeological sites in Iraq before the U.S. invasion as compared to the nature and extent of looting today; and (4) Where have all the antiquities that have been supposedly looted gone?

We need far less speculation and far more hard facts. It would also be interesting to learn if the new Democratic government of Iraq plans to continue the “state owns everything” approach of Saddam Hussein’s regime or whether the Iraqi Government aspires to promulgate laws that recognize that collectors play an important part in preserving and appreciating artifacts from the past.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

The Who, What, Why, and How of the Cultural Property Advisory Committee ("CPAC")

On April 17, 2008 at 6:00 - 8:30 PM, the International Foundation for Art Research ("IFAR") will host a panel discussion about the Cultural Property Advisory Committee ("CPAC") in New York City.

In promoting the event, IFAR explains, "CPAC is responsible for reviewing requests by foreign governments to restrict the import into the U.S. of certain categories of their cultural property 'in jeopardy from pillage' and then recommending a course of action. The activities of the Committee are often not understood and are occasionally controversial. This is a rare opportunity to learn about this important committee from current and former members."

The panel sounds promising. Hopefully, the event will be an opportunity for the panelists to comment on the lack of transparency of process that representatives of collectors, museums and dealers in antiquities and ethnographic material have complained about for years. It will be particularly interesting to hear the perspective of panel members associated with the archaeological community. Interestingly, they have tended to be supportive of all the secrecy surrounding the workings of CPAC. Could this be due to the fact that their peers appearing before CPAC to support broad restrictions on cultural artifacts have a much better sense of State Department decision making processes based on their own personal connections with cultural bureaucrats in source countries and State Department staff?

For more information about the program, see:

An Alternative View

There are already a number of blogs about cultural property issues. Most share what can be fairly characterized as an "archaeology over all" perspective, i.e., the view that preservation of "archaeological context" trumps all other interests. Hopefully, this blog will help provide another perspective, that of an ancient coin collector and lawyer who has tried to ensure that the small businesses of the numismatic trade receive fair treatment from government regulators. In that spirit, I hope this blog provides a useful counterpoint to the views found in most blogs about cultural property issues as well as what can be usually found in the main stream media. Informed and polite comment, is, of course, welcome.