May 1, 2008

Can the West do More to Protect Iraqi Antiquities?


Dr. Bahaa Mayah, a special adviser to Iraq'a Minister of Tourism and Antiquities, has strongly criticized the response of the West to the trade in looted or stolen antiquities originating from Iraq. Dr. Mayah held a press conference yesterday at the British Museum, and argued it was the occupying forces' responsibility to retrieve the valuable objects taken since 2003. He also urged a global ban on Iraqi antiquities via a UN Security Council resolution. He said "Our antiquities are scattered everywhere from America to Europe. This problem is not new but it has intensified since 2oo3 and is now becoming a bigger problem."

Speaking of America specifically, he argued "America is co-operating and not co-operating at the same time. We were grateful when they returned the Statue of Entemena (from 2,430BC) but at the same time, you see auctioneers all over the country trading in our antiquities. No action is being taken". This statement, curiously, comes on the same day the Department of State published a notice of an import Restriction to Protect the Cultural Heritage of Iraq.

You can also hear his comments on BBC Radio 4's Front Row program here, his interview starts at about 18 minutes in, which David Gill has noted this morning as well.

There at three separate issues here, first is what can be done to prevent looting in Iraq and how to regulate the illicit trade in Iraqi antiquities. Second, is the damage done by occupying forces to important sites at Babylon and elsewhere. Finally, there is the claim for restitution for objects which have long in the British Museum collection. The first two, it seems to me are related. The final question, which speaks to the notion of Universal Museums, must be separated. Every time this kind of discussion spins off into a discussion of the Parthenon Marbles and other restitutions, I think we lose site of the present ongoing issue: the looting of sites, and the illicit trade.

I am sympathetic to Dr. Mayar, as he must find it difficult dealing with a myriad of different agencies in Europe, and he feels the burden is on the source nation to give evidence of of an object's illicit nature. Unfortunately this is the regime which the 1970 UNESCO Convention has produced, and efforts to create an effective multilateral agreement in this arena have been notoriously difficult. I think that must surely be tied to the disagreement and acrimonious nature the debates often engender.

Prof. Patty Gerstenblith has noted before that a lot of the reporting and discussion of the law as it pertains to the antiquities trade is wrong, and misses the point completely. I have to agree. Dr. Mayar talks about the incomplete response of the West to the trade in Iraqi antiquities, but I think the US and the UK have taken the necessary steps to attach criminal penalties to this trade. International law already bans the trade in Iraqi antiquities, under UN Security Council Resolution 1483:

Decides that all Member States shall take appropriate steps to facilitate the safe return to Iraqi institutions of Iraqi cultural property and other items of archaeological, historical, cultural, rare scientific, and religious importance illegally removed from the Iraq National Museum, the National Library, and other locations in Iraq since the adoption of resolution 661 (1990) of 6 August 1990, including by establishing a prohibition on trade in or transfer of such items and items with respect to which reasonable suspicion exists that they have been illegally removed, and calls upon the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, Interpol, and other international organizations, as appropriate, to assist in the implementation of this paragraph;


In the United Kingdom, the Theft Act 1968, the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002, and the Iraq (UN Sanctions) Order 2003 creates a criminal offence for merely being in possession of Iraqi Antiquities.

The United States has banned the import of Iraqi antiquities, and the National Stolen Property Act, as well as the powerful Civil Forfeiture mechanisms available to Federal Prosecutors strongly regulate the criminal aspects of the trade.

The difficulty of course, and its one that Dr. Mayar speaks to, is the difficulty in establishing evidence of the fact that an object originated in Iraq, when it could have originated from any one of a number of countries. Are there Iraqi antiquities currently being sold in the United States and United Kingdom? I'll confess I don't know. His comments strongly indicate they are, but I'm unaware of such sales, or any reports indicating this is the case.

Ultimately, I think the US and the UK in particular have taken nearly all the steps they can to regulate the criminal aspects of the trade. To shift burdens any further would, without being overly dramatic here, require Constitutional-level reworking, to allow fewer rights for criminal defendants. That is a step no thinking person can responsibly advocate. That's at the core of my arguments about the utility of the criminal response to the illicit trade. The solution, as I see it, is to introduce a way for cultural property transactions to require title history, provenance and findspot information for antiquities. This would give real effect to the law. Without such information, the antiquities trade will continue to evade effective regulation. Think about the California searches from earlier this year, despite a dramatic raid, we have yet to see any charges filed. Though this is heresy to even suggest for many in the archaeological community, this will in my view require compromise and will almost certainly require a liberalization of the trade in some respects.
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