Monday, February 9, 2009

AIA Statement on Attachment of Cultural Artifacts: As High-Minded as It Seems?

The Archaeological Institute of America ("AIA") thinks that victims of state-sponsored terrorism should not be able to attach cultural artifacts to satisfy court judgments. Indeed, the AIA apparently feels so strongly about this that it plans to lobby Congress to change current law. See:

Why would the AIA side with regimes like those in Iran and Syria? Of course, if you believe the spin, the AIA has taken this position for only the most enlightened of reasons. As the AIA press release explains:

The ability of nations and institutions throughout the world to loan objects is crucial to achieving international cultural exchange and increasing understanding of different places, different times, and different people. Such archaeological artifacts should not be sold to satisfy claims that are unrelated to the objects themselves. While the earlier litigation related to Iran had already indicated some threat to cultural interchanges, the Metropolitan’s inability to borrow objects from Syria for an exhibition indicates the danger this legislation and litigation pose to cultural exchange. American citizens have been deprived of the opportunity of appreciating and learning from archaeological artifacts and works of art from one of the world’s oldest civilizations. The actions in question therefore pose a serious threat to cultural exchange and cultural diplomacy, which are extremely important in building understanding among peoples.

But, is cultural exchange really more important than compensating victims of terror? Certainly, at least one member of the AIA's "sister organization" Saving Antiquities for Everyone ("SAFE") has argued in the past that such interests do not trump compensating heirs of victims when it comes to "Holocaust art." Why should antiquities be any different?

The AIA website does not mention it, but is it possible that American archaeologists just want to please their Iranian and Syrian hosts? See Presumably fighting for such an exemption can only ingratiate American archaeologists with the Iranian and Syrian regimes and thus help ensure their continued access to archaeological sites in these countries. If Congress takes up this issue, the archaeological community's motives for supporting a change in the law need to be explored in depth before any amendment of existing law is adopted.


Wayne G. Sayles said...

Odd that the AIA, steeped in cultural property nationalism as it is, should make an appeal to "our shared past". Sometimes it seems like their script writers are from different planets and toss out phrases for effect without thinking. If I were a museum director, I'd find this a little disconcerting.

Ed Snible said...

It's better to seize money or something replaceable. If we seize an Iran Air jet the Iranians can buy another jet.

Antiquities aren't fungible. So they should be seized only as a last resort.

The the US ever give back the billions of dollars in frozen Iranian funds after the Islamic Revolution and the Hostage Crisis of 1977? If we still have that money it should be given to victims before we seize goods.

Cultural Property Observer said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Cultural Property Observer said...

Ed- The Plaintiffs seek to attach these artifacts because they allege there is nothing else to attach left in the US.

I must disagree that artifacts are typically not "fungible." For example, I seem to recall that much of the material in question in the lawsuits are cuneiform tablets. Many of these specific tablets are apparently hum drum in content and have already been photographed and translated. Their scholarly value is thus limited at this point.

Having said that, I am really taking no position on the merits of what the AIA requests. I mainly wanted to comment on what I view as the undisclosed interests of members of the archaeological community in the matter as well as an inconsistent position compared to what has been argued with respect to Holocaust art.