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New China-U.S. Antiquities Agreement: Some Concessions to U.S. Museums and Dealers

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Jay Kislak, Former Chairman of the State Department’s Cultural Property Advisory Commitee

Everyone wondered why it was taking so long for the U.S. State Department to act on China’s request—pending since May 2004—for the United States to impose sweeping import restrictions on artifacts from that country dating from prehistoric times all the way to 1911. The State Department, guided by its Cultural Property Advisory Committee (CPAC), has usually been quick to grant source countries’ requests and had never previously turned one down.

Now that the State Department has finally announced, in the last days of the Bush administration, an agreement with China (which it says “is consistent” with CPAC’s recommendation), we can begin to understand the reasons for the delay: Unlike past import-restriction agreements, the recently signed Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with China didn’t give the source country everything it wanted. It included significant concessions to serious objections raised by U.S. museum officials and dealers.

The biggest compromise was narrowing the scope of the agreement to objects created before the year 907 A.D. (not 1911, as China had requested). Import restrictions also cover monumental and wall art that are at least 250 years old. James Cuno, director of the Art Institute of Chicago, in testifying before CPAC almost four years ago, had complained that the broad range of cultural property subject to restriction under China’s request would have included “material…often made for the market and…circulated in the trade since the Han Dynasty, more than 2000 years ago.”

The language of the agreement shows that objections of American critics have been heeded: U.S. opponents of China’s request had argued that China made insufficient efforts to stop looting and had done little to police the movement of its cultural property to Hong Kong, which, as described by New York dealer James Lally, had been “an unrestricted exit point” for objects going abroad.

Taking such comments into account, the MOU calls on China to improve its own efforts to protect its cultural heritage and to “stop archaeological material looted or stolen from the mainland from entering the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region and the Macao Special Administrative
Region, with the goal of eliminating the illicit trade in these regions.”

While previous agreements have, like the latest one, encouraged long-term loans to the U.S. of artifacts from source countries whose patrimony was protected by U.S. import restructions (as does this agreement with Peru), the latest MOU goes further in addressing concerns of American museums and dealers: It calls on China to “continue to license the sale and export of certain antiquities as provided by law” and, more importantly, to “explore ways to make more of these objects available licitly.”

As I previously stated here (in my proposal for achieving a ceasefire in the cultural property wars), a well regulated licit market in professionally excavated antiquities, along with liberalized loan policies, could go a long way towards rendering obsolete the illicit trade in looted booty.

A detailed list of the types of objects encompassed by the agreement with China is here. It was signed on Wednesday and announced on Friday.

an ArtsJournal blog