Wednesday, July 22, 2009

A Question for Collectors

Last week, in a reply to a comment from Peter Tompa, I asked a question:

Given the scale of damage done by commercial diggers to ancient Native American burial, sacred, and other sites which are protected by law, would you also oppose an MOU between the US and another country that restricts the import of Anasazi pots (such as the ones in the Blanding case) into another country? Or would you welcome their help in enforcing our own cultural property laws? After all, it's not illegal to own Anasazi pots in Egypt. Would you support their "right to collect" them, even though they were illegally dug up here?

I wasn't given an answer form Mr Tompa, but I didn't really expect one. It is a rather sticky question for a lawyer to answer. If he had said he would oppose that MOU, he would basically be saying he's ok with someone in another country benefiting from illegal activity here. If he had said he would support such an MOU, then it would be hypocritical of him to be challenging the Chinese/Cyprus MOU.

Regardless of how Mr. Tompa would have answered, I think it's a question that all collectors should ask themselves before ignoring another country's cultural property laws and buying an item of dubious origin.

Do we want someone in another country to benefit from what is illegal activity here? If your answer to that is no, then why is it ok for us to to benefit from illegal activity in another country? That's exactly what happens when we buy items that are dug up in another country, not reported as required by law, and shipped out of that country without required export permits. We get the benefit of what is illegal activity in that other country.

An MOU on cultural property between the US and another country says in effect that the US is agreeing to not let something illegally removed from another country be imported into the US. Would we expect anything different if the tables were turned? I'm sure the US people would be grateful to have an Anasazi pot, that was illegally excavated from a grave, seized and returned by another country if someone attempted to import it.

And what about the advocates of "collectors' rights?" Would they support that same "right to collect" in another country even if what is collected is illegally obtained on US soil? Or does that "right to collect" only apply to Americans?

Many countries have laws regarding cultural property, including the US. We have laws right here in our own country that are very similar to the ones that are considered so restrictive in other countries. The laws here and in other countries are in place because those governments have decided that it's in the best interest of its citizens to protect its cultural heritage. Looting continues unabated all over the world, including right here in the US, destroying the historical record in an effort to find bits and pieces to sell for a profit. When we buy items illegally obtained in another country we are contributing to this destruction.


Cultural Property Observer said...

Robyn- Overall, I think you are operating under some faulty assumptions. Our law is quite different than the laws in some other countries. It recognizes the rights of individuals to excavate Indian artifacts, etc. on private land (this is enshrined in the US Constitution). In contrast, the law in places like Egypt is far broader and gives the Egyptian Government the rights to anything found anywhere (and now I believe, even as to collections that had been protected by so-called "grandfather clauses.")

My main concern with State Department MOU's is that as promulgated, they assume undocumented artifacts are effectively "stolen," which is a faulty assumption for items like coins that have been collected without detailed provenance information for generations. Unfortunately, enforcement appears to be based on little more than the art law equivalent of "racial profiling." In my opinion, this is just wrong. There needs to be more proof than just that an artifact looks like something on a designated list. Going forward, restrictions should require at least some showing by the government that there is a reasonable suspicion that the artifact was the product of a recent illicit excavation. As it is now, many artifacts are simply abandoned at Customs for the simple reason that it is too expensive to fight the system, particularly given what they are worth.

Overall, I wouldn't be too eager to apply other countries' laws here, particularly ones from authoritarian governments like that in Egypt. Think of Egypt's laws on freedom of the press, the rights of women, the status of gays, etc. Egypt’s antiquities laws follow the same play book. The drafters of the CPIA sought to retain the US’s “independent judgment” in these matters, but the State Department has thought it more important to please nationalist governments and their allies in the archaeological community than to follow the law. If you don’t believe me, I suggest you purchase the latest IFAR publication mentioned on my blog. The comments of the CPAC members on a panel discussing the issue are quite revealing.


Peter Tompa

Robyn said...

Mr. Tompa,

I thought the question in my post was quite straightforward. Nowhere in my post did I say or imply that I was eager to have any other country's laws implemented here. What I did say was that I respect those countries' rights to pass whatever laws they deem to be in their citizens' best interest.

We too have laws to protect the archaeological resource of our country and it was how you would respond to breaches of those laws that I was asking about.

You still haven't answered my original question: Would you or would you not support an MOU between the US and another country
restricting the import of items that can't be shown to be legally acquired that came from US soil? Would you still advocate their "right to collect" items that are illegally acquired here?

Cultural Property Observer said...

Robyn- If you fully identify yourself, I will be happy to answer that question.


Peter Tompa

Don Thieme said...

Not all items excavated on private land are protected here. Items that are clearly identifiable as burial furniture are protected wherever they are found as well as human skeletal remains. Examples of artifacts would be the Late Archaic bone pins from here in the Southeast or the Mimbres bowls from the Southwest. We should have the sort of MOU that you mention for those.

Bill Donovan said...

Hi R,

This link contains some food for thought on heritage issues:

What is heritage?

here is another interesting article from an eloquent advocate of collector's rights, John Hooker:Deconstructing Cultural Heritage as it applies to property

In addition, while your question is an interesting one. I don't think it applies, because one country doesn't have any say over how another creates and enforces it's laws.

A MOU is a diplomatic document, and is often used as a bargaining chip. There are a lot of gray areas involved. So many gray areas in fact the US State Department refuses to release many documents regarding the Cypriot and Chinese MOUs even after a Freedom of Information Act request.

In addition I personally would not have a problem with someone in Egypt owning an Anasazi pot, because that object would bring that person a little closer to a global awareness. That Native American pot in a foreign country might build a little bridge of friendship, empathy, and optimism. I am so proud of my country that I am willing to share its identity objects.

In fact, I would much rather have a person who would identify with, look it, and study an artifact be able to purchase and own it over a state. The one exception is with one of a kind masterpieces of ancient art, I think they should be in museums or displayed at the original sites. However, the portable antiquities I collect - Roman Imperial coins, were produced in the hundreds of millions and are found mostly in topsoil by metal detectorists. It quickly becomes ridiculous, if you can imagine, declaring all of the area covered by the Ancient World as an archaeological site - or to attempt to stop people who live there from finding and selling obviously valuable objects.

I have a friend from Bulgaria who now lives in the US, and she told me that when Bulgarians want to build a new building they don't knock it down and truck it away, instead they pulverize it and build on top of the rubble, so as not to uncover the inevitable ancient objects underneath it - which would stop construction and bring in the officials and experts.

Here is an example of what great care archaeologists take with Roman Coins at Amheida in Egypt:Brasso and Undergraduates

Nationalism, and the idea of state ownership of history is a very twisted use of artifacts. The market is a wonderful indicator of who values what, because you have to put your effort and money where your mouth is.


Robyn said...

Hi Mr.Thieme,

Thanks for your comment. You are correct about burial sites and associated items. I would also welcome an MOU that would help to protect our own cultural property.

Take care,

Robyn said...

Mr. Tompa,



Robyn said...

Mr. Donovan,

I'll only address the part of your comment that's relevant to my post.

Would you still have no problem if that pot were ILLEGALLY obtained? That was the question in my post. I find it interesting that you think it's ok to ignore cultural property laws, including the ones in this country, as long as you can justify it in your mind in the interest of "building bridges". What kind of bridges are built on encouraging and funding illegal activity? Would the state you'd rather it not be in the hands of be one of the United States? Why?

Cultural Property Observer said...

Robyn- I just think it is good practice to identify oneself, particularly before one makes strong statements of opinion about others as you have done. In any event, someone suggested your name is Robyn Cirulli. Confirmation of that would do.

As to other countries signing MOU's with the US to protect US "cultural property," why not? Still, I would not want collectors in other countries to be treated unfairly either, so I would hope that any such MOU's would ensure that only clear violations of the law should be prosecuted. For a start, let's be done with this undocumented means "stolen" stuff. [Keep in mind, in the minds of archaeologists and the US Government, "documented" means far more than an invoice. If that was all it meant, we would not be having such an argument.]

Also, for any possible MOU, I would also like to ensure that there would be a commitment that the law would be applied equally to everyone. If you look at reports of looting in source countries, it is funny how often poor peasants and pensioners are prosecuted, but for some reason there are few, if any, stories about wealthy, connected collectors having the law come down upon them.

As a practical matter though, you must recognize any such MOU's with Egypt or other source countries would only be symbolic. I highly doubt there are many collectors of Native American materials in those countries (I think the material is collected in W, Europe, though) so presumably the State Department would not think the effort worth the bother.

Also, in general I would also agree with Bill and be happy for foreign collectors to own some Native American artifacts. That is what cultural exchange is all about!


Peter Tompa

Robyn said...

Mr. Tompa,

The hypothetical MOU I was speaking of need not be with Egypt, or any other "source country" and you know that. In fact I didn't have any particular country in mind. That's why I said "and another country". Logic would dictate that any MOU would be with a country where there was a market for such items.

I'm glad to hear that you would not oppose an MOU between the US and another country attempting to prevent the illegal exploitation of the US archaeological heritage to supply a clandestine foreign market. But isn't that what other countries are doing through MOUs with our country? This is the reason that the CPIA requires importers to supply documentation of licit origins, just as a seller of Anasazi pots should be required to supply proof they were not excavated illegally. Frankly, I do not see the difference, Cyprus and China only seek (pretty minimal) assurances that US dealers are importing and dealing in material which can be shown to have left those countries by legal means. I really do not see why responsible collectors and dealers would be opposed to acquiescing to that.

David Gill said...

For further discussion and comments see Looting Matters.