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.

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