As you read this, criminals somewhere in the world are destroying portions of mankind's past. With backhoe and shovel, chainsaw and crowbar, they are wrenching priceless objects from sites in the mountains of Peru, the coasts of Sicily, and the deserts of Iraq. Brutal and uncaring, these robbers leave behind a wake of decapitated statues, mutilated temples, and pillaged trenches where archaeologists were seeking clues to little-understood civilizations. The results of this looting include disfigured architectural monuments, vanished aesthetic objects, and an incalculable loss of information about the past. And it shows no signs of diminishing.
As you continue to read, other people across the globe are purchasing some of mankind's oldest and most exquisite creations. Contemplating ancient statues, vases, and stelae, many of these purchasers experience antiquities' near-mystical power to connect them to the past or to transcend time through beauty. Proud of their efforts, these private collectors, commercial dealers, and museum curators view themselves as temporary caretakers of timeless treasures. Their love for these artifacts often resembles the passion one associates with religious fervor. It, too, shows no signs of diminishing.
At first glance, the connection between those who loot antiquities and those who collect, trade, and preserve them seems the stuff of academic seminars and journals. Yet such is the allure of ancient treasures that, since the 1970s, this relationship has spawned global treaties, inflamed Third World nationalism, created a secretive Washington bureaucracy, and triggered federal prosecutions. To some, this international cooperation reflects the ability of the world's nations to unite to protect an endangered world resource. To others, it demonstrates the hazards resulting when "feel-good" multinationalism collides not only with the sovereignty of the United States but with the basic human desire to surround oneself with objects of beauty.
"We have a situation in this country today where American citizens pursue their legal rights under the shadow of prosecution by foreign laws, and private and public collections of antiquities are at risk to the demands of cultural ministers in other countries," says New York lawyer William Pearlstein. "The antiquities situation is a mess," echoes Kate Fitz Gibbon, a Santa Fe dealer in Central Asian artifacts. "We're heading for a major crisis in the near future."
It's been a decade since I first wrote about "cultural patrimony," the question of who has the right to own and exhibit mankind's aesthetic and archaeological treasures. At the time, stories were proliferating about looters plundering the temples of Cambodia's Angkor Wat and the tombs of Mali's Niger River delta. Archaeologists were still buzzing about the Metropolitan Museum's 1993 repatriation to Istanbul of the so-called "Lydian Horde" of gold objects, which smugglers had illegally excavated from Turkey and sold to the museum. I found the topic abstruse, filled with mind-numbing legal documents and visually stunning artifacts. All I knew for sure was that collector demand for these objects created incentives for looters to pillage archaeological sites in Third World countries. End the international antiquity trade, I thought, and the looting in those "source" nations would stop.
In the late 1990s, though, my investigations brought me to an urbane but down-to-earth antiquities dealer named Frederick Schultz. In his 57th Street gallery, filled with vitrines displaying relics of Chinese, Etruscan, and other ancient civilizations, the boyish Schultz explained the viewpoint championed by the "trade." Looting is indeed a problem, he conceded, but critics of dealers were wrong. The international antiquities market--together with the private and public collections it supplies--preserves ancient treasures and disseminates their beauty and influence across the globe. "A strong market assures a free flow of antiquities and acts in the best interests of everyone--archaeologists, collectors, and the people in source and market nations," Schultz argued.
He was persuasive. But then, as the head of the New York�based National Association of Dealers in Ancient, Oriental, and Primitive Art, he had to be; he was a high-profile defender of the trade and an adviser to the Clinton administration on issues involving antiquities.
Cultural patrimony was the focus of a complex, three-sided debate. On one side, there are the "internationalists": academics, dealers, and collectors who advocate a vigorous but regulated market as the best way to protect antiquities and promote global understanding and universal values. "The moment the Soviet Union fell, the world plunged into ethnocentricity," says George Ortiz, a celebrated collector of classical and Middle Eastern antiquities. "Instead of each group claiming its own heritage, we need to create a common culture by allowing art and antiquities to circulate around the world."
Opposed to this view is a second group comprised of source nation officials and Western academics who believe cultural patrimony is linked to a people's identity and sense of self-determination. As Claude Daniel Ardouin, then director of Senegal's West African Museum Program, once told me, "Our cultural heritage tells us who we are. I find it unacceptable that big dealers are sitting around in their shops in Paris and New York thinking about the pretty objects they are going to take from my country." These "nationalists" generally call for a trade that is limited, heavily regulated, and open to public scrutiny.
The third party is the most extreme. It consists of archaeologists who castigate the trade for removing cultural artifacts from their indigenous context, rendering them useless for scientific study. Unlike the nationalists, many archaeologists oppose the export of cultural property to insure its preservation and accessibility. "One cares about the people and the area in which we work, but our primary interest is to understand the history of the country," says Colin Renfrew, a member of the British House of Lords and director of the Cambridge University�based McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research. Many in this group would like to see the antiquities trade shut down altogether. According to Boston University archaeologist Ricardo Elia, "Collectors and dealers are dinosaurs. They think it's still the 18th century, when you could rip things out of the ground and put them on your mantle."
The Long Arm of Mexican Law
The nationalists' and archaeologists' illiberal amalgam of Third World nationalism, anti-capitalist sentiment, and distrust of aesthetic connoisseurship dates back to the U.N. Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization's (UNESCO) 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export, and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. The first major international agreement to protect cultural property from thieves and smugglers, the convention created a legal framework allowing signatory governments to negotiate for the return of looted items. Over the years, UNESCO followed with further "recommendations" that clarified international rules for protecting and exchanging cultural property. These pronouncements reflected an increasingly anti-market bias. In 2001, for example, UNESCO declared that "underwater cultural heritage shall not be commercially exploited."
The U.S. signed the convention in 1972, and in 1983 Congress passed the Cultural Properties Implementation Act (CPIA), which established a process by which source nations could request U.S. import bans on archaeological material originating within their borders. Legislators hoped restricting entry into the American market would help reduce looting. Mindful of UNESCO's anti-market bias, however, they included in the CPIA measures to protect dealers, collectors, and museums. "We felt we were in the business of encouraging the legitimate circulation of cultural objects," says Meredith Palmer, who as a State Department official in the 1970s helped develop the legal and intellectual framework for the CPIA. "We took pains to ensure that any law based on the convention reflected the interests of the American people."
Be that as it may, the result was a classic example of what happens when the state decides to limit or prevent people from doing what they feel is their natural right, in this case purchasing antiquities. Under the CPIA, a nation seeking U.S. import restrictions on cultural objects must submit a petition giving its reasons for the request, documenting, among other topics, the severity of the looting problem and the country's own efforts to curtail it. Further, it must identify categories of endangered objects and specific sites jeopardized by robbers. An advisory committee reviews the request, then passes its recommendations to an anonymous State Department official empowered to approve the petition, generally for a period of five years.