May 18, 2007

The Cultural Property Advisory Committee

The Museum Security Network mailing list today circulated a really fascinating blog entry by Gary Vikan from last month. Vikan was discussing a NY Times article on the Cultural Property Advisory Committee. It's a State Department body which recommends whether the US should adopt import restrictions on certain classes of objects. It's the way the US chose to implement the 1970 UNESCO Convention.

Here's a link to the NY Times article, Is the US Protecting Foreign Artifacts? Don't Ask. You can access it via the timesselect service, which is free to academics and students. `

Here's a link to Gary Vikan's post. Of particular interest are some of the comments after the post.

Here's an excerpt of what Vikan had to say:

The work of CPAC, which was created in 1983 by legislation intended to give effect to ratification of the UNESCO Convention on cultural property (1970), is to make recommendations to the State Department on applications from foreign nations asking, in effect, that their export laws governing cultural property become our import laws. From its inception, the committee’s activities have been highly secretive; in recent years, its internal deliberations have become increasingly contentious, as the archaeologists’ voice has come to dominate the collectors and dealers on the committee.

The hot issue now is whether the State Department will accept, on CPAC’s recommendation, a sweeping ban on the import of Chinese art and artifacts predating 1911. (The often-repeated counterarguments are that the Chinese have yet to clean up their own art-dealing house and that the share of the Chinese trade is relatively small, and will simply go elsewhere.)

The points made by Kahn, and through him, by his many sources on and off the committee, including its present chair, Jay Kislak, are right on the mark. The archaeologists’ voice and values are disproportionately strong among the CPAC membership, and its activities are overly secretive and exclusionary.


Vikan's perspective is very enlightening, as he served on the CPAC from 2000-2003, and resigned after the looting of the National Museum of Iraq. Both links are essential reading if you are interested in cultural policy or the protection of antiquities.

Much of this controversy centers around China. China
may be one of the most important source nations for antiquities. Two aspects make it unique. First, as John Henry Merryman says “China, with its many centuries of high civilization and its vast area and large population, may be the richest source of cultural property of all.” Second, China has used some unique regulatory techniques, including a ratings system for antiquities and a state right of purchase, which might both prove useful if implemented properly. Unfortunately, China’s current legal framework does a poor job of preserving antiquities and their accompanying archaeological context, as antiquities may be the single most valuable commodity smuggled out of the country.



Without regard to the reasons given for the panel's secrecy, from an academics perspective it is indeed frustrating that we can't have a clearer picture of how the advisory committee reaches its decisions. However, all 11 requests for import restrictions have been granted. Whether that will continue for China and Cypress remains to be seen. The importance of the committee internationally should not be underestimated, as the US by most accounts is considered the largest importer of art and antiquities.
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