Saturday, 8 March 2014

America’s Agreement with China Creates Opportunities and Challenges

A few days ago Kate Fitz Gibbon published a text in the Art Newspaper rehearsing the trade's tired old argument (much seen on the Tompa blog too) that restricting the movement of items illegally exported from China "unfairly" gives the internal Chinese art trade and collectors an advantage over US dealers and collectors. I rather thought that keeping these goods in China instead of scattering them among the wealthy buyers outside which was the whole point of fighting smuggling.

Anyhow, Laetitia La Follette (University of Massachusetts Amherst) in reply put over a welcome and more balanced point of view in the web edition of the Art Newspaper ("America’s agreement with China creates opportunities as well as challenges"  1st March 2014). Her point is if the US, following the demands of dealers and collectors  leaves the bargaining table, "it could lose leverage in the cultural policy arena". She says Fitz-Gibon's article "misleads in two important ways. First, this agreement with China goes far beyond import restrictions" which are only part of the deal:
"the US agreed to restrict the import into this country of undocumented archaeological and ethnological materials whose pillage threatens the cultural patrimony of the requesting nation". 
An extensive part of her text lists a persuasive catalogue of ways that this deal benefits the US. I am not so sure about her wording concerning the second way in which the Fitz-Gibbon stance was misleading:
The second fallacy is that this aims “to curb smuggling”. No one expects any single agreement will completely “stop the looting of archaeological sites and illegal trafficking”. Studies have shown that the modern trade in stolen works of art involves a complex economic network. 
Surely restricting "the import into this country of undocumented archaeological and ethnological materials" is precisely aimed at curbing the movement of smuggled cultural property. Only those with documentation of licit origins and export will be allowed into the US. She concludes:
In the last decade, the global political landscape has shifted. Restrictions on the trade in cultural artefacts are increasingly commonplace, as countries seek better control over their cultural heritage and the economic and educational benefits that preserving that heritage can bring. Bilateral agreements like the one forged with China in 2009 and renewed early this year present challenges but also great opportunities. To leave the bargaining table and abandon these agreements, as those who oppose them prefer, is to forfeit the leverage the US can have in this important arena.

US dealers and collectors and their lobbyists seem intent on ignoring this global shift, and thus we find lobbyist Tompa pouncing on the words of the Classical sculpture expert suggesting (falsely) that she has "conceded that MOUs do not curb looting" and in the interest of the US trade, import restrictions on items without licit origins therefore should be abandoned. This is of course not what La Follette said. The point she made is that the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property exists to define "the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property", the word looting does not appear in any of its 26 articles. It is individuals in the US who read that interpretation into a document which has a specific purpose (see the title) - one that it looks like dealers and collectors of dugup antiquities find difficult to accept.

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