Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Tomb Raiders

NPR ran a series on the traffic in illicit antiquities. It is an interesting look at the international market for archaeological pieces.

Customs and Border Protection is responsible for interdicting and seizing this merchandise when imported without legal authority. The US has 11 bilateral agreements designed to protect so-called cultural property of archaeological, ethnological, or cultural significance. The US did this pursuant to the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. The US implemented this convention through the Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act. Here is a handy chart showing the status of the agreements. Other protection is afforded under the
Pre-Colombian Monumental, Architectural Sculpture or Murals Act of 1972

For its part, Customs has published an Informed Compliance Publication on the topic.

I've always been fascinated by this sub-specialty of customs law. It strikes me as one of those rare areas of customs law where the stakes are something other than money. On one side is a country trying to reclaim or preserve its cultural heritage. On the other side, in the best case, is a museum that acquired a piece in good faith and possibly generations ago. In the worst case it is an unscrupulous collector. In the case of the museum, it is not immediately clear who has the moral high ground. The NPR story uses a good analogy. Suppose someone made off with the Liberty Bell and it later turned up at an auction in Japan or Russia. That is kind of what Peru claims happened when Inca artifacts were stolen from Machu Picchu or other sites.

And, no post on Tomb Raiders would be complete without this link.

1 comment:

Matt said...

Garry Wills has some good commentary on the recovery/restitution controversy in last week's New York Review, in his article on the Met's antiquities exhibit. The Parthenon, in fact did not really belong to the Athenians, but to Athena herself. I'm not sure what Customs should do when someone attempts to make entry of merchandise which is owned by a god.