Saturday, November 21, 2009

Gill PR Newswire Release Confuses Italy's Successes with MOU's Impact on American Citizens and Institutions

Archaeological Blogger David Gill has issued another PRNewswire Release, this time linking Italy's successful repatriation efforts to its current MOU with the US. See Looting Matters: Are Import Restrictions on Italian Antiquities Working? The nub of Gill's post is that because objects have been returned to Italy, the MOU must be "working." The problem with this claim is that such repatriations have nothing at all to do with the impact of the current MOU on American citizens and institutions.

Instead, US Museums have repatriated artifacts accessioned well before the 2001 MOU voluntarily after negative publicity, and an auction house recently returned other artifacts, because Italy produced photographic evidence they were from the Medici trove of stolen artifacts. See

What does the MOU do then as far as US citizens and institutions are concerned? Art. I in fact sets up import restrictions on a wide range of Classical Greek and Roman cultural artifacts. The restrictions require importers to certify artifacts on the designated list were outside of Italy as of January 23, 2001, the date restrictions were promulgated. See
(Alternatively, an Italian export certificate must be produced.) Such restrictions are inherently controversial because they effectively shift the burden of proof onto the importer to show that artifacts are "legitimate," even where provenance information necessary to make that showing may not be readily available.

As such, they place an unnecessary burden on the legitimate exchange of cultural artifacts. The current restrictions have been in place since 2001. Their provenance requirements have certainly impacted the ability of Americans to import unprovenanced ancient Roman and Greek artifacts of Italian origin. At the same time, Italians continue to be able to purchase such unprovenanced artifacts in Italy itself without any similar legal impediments. See

Gill has cited the Carabinieri's successful police work that has effectively staunched the looting of archaeological sites. Though such efforts fulfill certain of Italy's obligations under Art. II of the current MOU, those successes have come about without any reference at all to the import restrictions under Art. I the MOU. As such, isn't it time to reexamine whether such import restrictions-- and their negative impact on American citizens and institutions interested in the study, preservation and display of Italian cultural artifacts-- are truly necessary when CPAC considers Art. I of the current MOU next fall?


Bill Donovan said...

thanks for posting, I always enjoy reading the Cultural Property Observer.

Nancy Ewart said...

I also like your take on this controversial subject. There now seems to be an automatic assumption that it's OK to empty out American museums and return any and all items to their "countries of origin." Nobody (or almost nobody ) seems to be asking what this will do in the long run. For instance, Egypt and Italy are chock-a-block full of treasures which they don't care or or protect: the Cairo Museum is a glaring example but not the only one. They have numerous archaeological sites which are being freely looted due to corruption and lack of security. Is their attention being focused on these on-going issues or is it focused on a shopping list of items which have already been cleaned, preserved, and identified by (mostly) Western museums? I agree that looting is a serious issue but is what is being done stopping it or is it pushing the black market on antiquities further underground? Why now would any reputable museum want to buy, much less display any collection if it can be deemed as illegally obtained and seized, sometimes on the most tenuous evidence. Of course, some antiquities have been illegally obtained. Looting matters but let's focus on going forward and stopping the problem.

Cultural Property Observer said...

Thank you both for your comments. On a related note, it can also be argued that all the emphasis on repatriation and import restrictions creates a diversion that effectively lets other countries off the hook from adequately caring for their own cultural patrimony. The Art Newspaper recently quoted Italy's new arts czar as admitting that his country grossly under spends on preserving what it already has as compared to its European neighbors-- this despite the fact that Italy has one of the world's richest economies. I would personally like to see less emphasis on nationalist ideology and more emphasis on partnering with interested members of the public as the UK has done with its PAS and Treasure Trove law.


Peter Tompa