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Greek Cultural-Property Agreement: U.S. Adopts Broad Import Restrictions

Signing cultural-property agreement with Greece: U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Greek Minister of Foreign Affairs Stavros Lambrinidis

A Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Greece, restricting U.S. importation of that country’s cultural property, was signed Saturday at the Acropolis Museum, Athens, by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Greek Minister of Foreign Affairs Stavros Lambrinidis. Some of the proposed MOU’s originally proposed provisions (at least one of which was subsequently modified) had been strongly opposed by the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) at hearings held in October by the U.S. State Department’s Cultural Property Advisory Committee (CPAC).

According to the State Department’s brief fact sheet, the new MOU (pending ratification by Greece) will restrict importation into the U.S. of Greek archaeological and cultural material “generally associated with the Upper Paleolithic through Late Byzantine periods”—that is, through the 15th century.

In first of its two October position papers criticizing the MOU (which I had briefly alluded to at the bottom of this previous post), AAMD asked the State Department not to enter into the agreement unless Greece agreed to take the following steps. (The ones that I’ve highlighted might be particularly problematic for the Greeks.)

• Taking action necessary, both administratively and legislatively, to provide long term loans of significant archaeological and ethnological material to museums in the United States

• Demonstrating its ability and willingness to work cooperatively and responsibly with museums in the United States on exhibitions of works for which import restrictions are sought

• Modifying its position that all artifacts created in Greece belong to Greece

• Indicating a willingness to at least consider a licit market for antiquities

• Demonstrating its ability and willingness to protect its sites from illicit and
unscientific excavation

AAMD’s strongly worded statement, written by attorney Stephen J. Knerly Jr., charged that “Greece has not taken sufficient measures to protect its cultural property and its efforts towards protecting its archaeological sites to date are not adequate.”

When I asked Dan Monroe, president of AAMD, about his association’s stance regarding MOUs, such as the agreement with Greece, he indicated that it is not the same as it was when the strongly worded statements were issued last October, under his predecessor, Kaywin Feldman.

Monroe told me:

We are changing the way in which we work with CPAC and will be taking a very hard look at the things that we would like from specific nations. I can say, with respect to the desire to create licit markets in many places, that we think that’s viable in some places. But I think that as an across-the-board kind of request, it’s not the time in many cases to be pushing for that. There are just too many nations in which the notion of creating licit markets is some time far in the future.

We would like to see reciprocity. There’s been a focus on long-term loans. We’re setting up a new mechanism whereby we’ll deal with individual MOU requests on a case-by-case basis, taking a more nuanced tack. I don’t want to characterize it in advance, because each one of these MOUs is very different. It depends on the nation and a whole batch of factors.

But we are very interested in creating ongoing cultural exchanges that work, where there is an easy exchange of loans, whether they’re long-term or not. And we are looking for ways in which we can approach MOUs much more in concert with our colleagues in the archaeology community, which isn’t to say we’ll always agree, because we won’t. But in many instances, there are opportunities for us to work closer together with regard to MOU requests.

The initiative to promote more constructive dialogue with archaeologists began “a couple of years ago,” Monroe said, and is now being led by Maxwell Anderson, director if the Indianapolis Museum.

In a second AAMD statement on Greece, written by Larry Feinberg, director of the Santa Barbara Museum, that nation’s MOU request was criticized as “overly broad.” On this point, AAMD does appear to have gotten some traction: Feinberg in October described the original proposal as restricting the importation of material from “the Neolithic Era through the mid-18th century”—a longer time frame than the Upper Paleolithic-through-15th century described in this week’s fact sheet outlining the final agreement.

I have not yet been able to determine any other ways in which the final version of the MOU might differ from the one on which public comment was sought nine months ago. Only a “public summary” of the proposed MOU, not the full text, was disseminated back in October, and the link to the summary, in the right column of this State Department webpage, no longer functions.

The detailed provisions of the new MOU are not currently on the State Department’s webpage for cultural-property import restrictions. Its spokesperson, Elizabeth Gosselin, could not provide me with any details, beyond the fact sheet.

In declining yesterday to send me the text of the signed agreement, the State Department, through its spokesperson, offered the following explanation:

Although the agreement has been signed by the two governments, it will not enter into force until the Greek Parliament has ratified it. Under Greek law, any agreement pending before Parliament for ratification may not be released to the public until such time as it is ratified. Out of respect for Greek law and diplomatic protocol, the agreement will not be released at this time. Once ratified, we will announce the agreement with a media note.

I think that under American law, any agreement that we have officially signed ought to be public information. There is already too much secrecy in how CPAC, a federal government advisory body, operates. Once a State Department decision regarding foreign cultural-property requests is finalized, the full extent of what has been agreed to should be promptly disclosed to the American public.

In the past, CPAC has almost always acceded fully to foreign requests. Another rare exception, besides the latest deal with Greece, was the MOU with China, signed in January 2009, for which some modifications were made to an unreasonably sweeping request by the source country.

CPAC’s pro-source country leanings should only grow more pronounced under its incoming chairperson, recently chosen by President Obama—De Paul College of Law professor and ardent repatriationist Patty Gerstenblith. She had previously been a member of CPAC from 2000-2003. She has now jumped from being entirely off the committee for eight years to being named as its chairperson.

Gerstenblith said this me today, regarding the signing of the Greek MOU:

The real story is, of course, that Hillary Clinton signed the agreement herself: It may be the first time that a secretary of state has personally signed a CPIA [Cultural Property Implementation Act] MOU. She has displayed a consistent and remarkable interest in cultural heritage preservation from the time she was First Lady through to today.

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