Sunday, May 4, 2008

"Emergency" Iraqi Restrictions-- Dry Run for Upcoming Chinese Restrictions?

The breadth of the "emergency restrictions" on Iraqi cultural artifacts reminds me of the breadth of the still-pending request for import restrictions on Chinese cultural artifacts. The State Department has reported that the Chinese request includes material dating from pre-historic times to the end of the Chinese Empire, circa 1911:

As the State Department explains,

"The People's Republic of China seeks import restrictions on categories of pillaged archaeological material from the Paleolithic Period to Qing Dynasty including, but not limited to:

Metals - bronze, gold, and silver vessels, sculpture, utensils, jewelry, coins, weapons, and armor
Ceramic - stoneware and porcelain vessels, sculpture, jewelry and architectural elements
Stone - vessels, sculpture, weapons, utensils, jewelry, architectural elements
Painting and calligraphy - on wood, paper, silk, stone, fresco
Textiles - silk clothing, hangings, furnishings
Lacquer, bone, ivory and horn objects, including inscribed materials
Wood and bamboo objects, including inscribed objects"


It seems to me that the State Department may seek to use the Iraqi "emergency" restrictions as precedent to extend import restrictions to virtually any cultural artifact from virtually any era from virtually any state that requests it. Given the inclusion of 20th c. paintings on the Iraqi "designated list," it does not even appear that the State Department feels constrained by the CPIA's definitions of "archaeological" and "ethnological artifacts" in deciding to impose import restrictions.

The United States only agreed to the 1970 UNESCO Convention with the proviso that it would retain its "independent judgment" to decide the extent to which it would impose import restrictions at the behest of foreign states. Early on, import restrictions were only applied against a limited number of artifacts from a limited number of mostly poor, third world countries that had difficulty policing their borders. Now even rich EU countries like Cyprus and Italy have benefitted from US restrictions even as they categorically refuse to undertake "self-help" measures like passing "Treasure Trove" laws. At the same time, restrictions have been imposed on more and more types of artifacts from more and eras, up to and including the 20th c. Unfortunately, there appears to be no end to such "culture creep" in sight.

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