Monday 22 March 2010

Protecting Against Plunder: The United States and the International Efforts Against Looting of Antiquities

Efrat, Asif, Protecting Against Plunder: The United States and the International Efforts Against Looting of Antiquities (February 13, 2010).
Available at SSRN:

The United States endorsed the international regulation of antiquities and joined the UNESCO Convention in 1983. The article seeks to explain why the United States chose to establish controls on antiquities, to the benefit of foreign countries facing archaeological plunder and (he says) to the detriment of the US art market. It is argued that the

concern of US policymakers about looting abroad resulted from a series of scandals that exposed the involvement of American museums and collectors with looted material. Advocacy efforts of American archaeologists also played a key role in educating policymakers about the loss of historical knowledge caused by looting and the necessity of regulation. The article further analyzes how antiquities dealers and certain museums lobbied Congress against implementing the UNESCO Convention and why Congress decided in favor of implementation as an act of international moral leadership.
After an analysis of the Congressional battle (pp 41-75) in which we note that collectors play a very minor role compared to the other players (and makes an interesting contrast to the version presented in their anti-"Nationalism" text by the ACCG), the author examines how the US debate over looted antiquities has evolved to the present (section V, pp 76-85). It is interesting that the latter mentions "dealers", Cuno (as a "leader" of the museums lobby) and SAFE but there is not a mention of the ACCG but the ACCP is mentioned.

The debate over international antiquities regulation has been raging in the United States for forty years but has seen little progress. The protagonists may have changed – art museums rather than dealers are today the main opponents of regulation – but the opposing camps still hold highly divergent views even with respect to the most fundamental questions: Do antiquities belong to source countries or to mankind? Are unprovenanced objects likely looted? Is archaeological heritage best protected through strict regulation or through the release of objects to the open market? The archaeological and art communities give very different answers to these questions, and the debate between them is not much closer to resolution today than it was four decades ago.

The article concludes with implications for the role of values versus interests in international law.

This case has clearly demonstrated that under certain circumstances values can matter. Governments may indeed take into account values and moral beliefs when forming their views on an international agreement. Furthermore, values may overwhelm material self-interest. A government may choose to promote values even when doing so means incurring significant costs and lowering the welfare of domestic constituencies. As this article has shown, the US government was willing to bear the economic and cultural costs of antiquities regulation for the purpose of curbing plunder abroad. It sought to advance archaeological preservation and historical knowledge at the expense of American dealers and collectors as well as the museumgoing public. [..] Why was the United States the only major market country willing to compromise its selfinterest for the sake of archaeological preservation? This article has identified two factors that increased the weight of normative considerations in the eyes of US policymakers and allowed those considerations to prevail over material interests. First, public scandals played an important role in convincing policymakers that the United States should put its own house in order. These scandals created a sense of shame and embarrassment and a feeling that something had to be done. They also mitigated the resistance of those actors that opposed the UNESCO Convention and created a public climate conducive to the Convention’s ratification and implementation. Second, advocacy of civil society – the archaeological community – proved effective and essential. Building on their knowledge and experience, the archaeologists managed to convey to policymakers how catastrophic looting is for our understanding of the past. They demonstrated the gravity of the problem in concrete and tangible ways; showed how the demand of markets – in particular, the American one – fueled looting; and convinced policymakers that regulation was necessary.

The article has examined how the US government balanced values and interests with
respect to the regulation of antiquities and why values ultimately trumped interests. This, I believe, is the way forward for the values-versus-interests debate. To make progress in this debate, we ought to move beyond the question of whether values or interests matter. The more fruitful avenue of inquiry would be to specify how governments balance values versus interests and to identify the conditions under which they favor one or the other.
I bet Mr Tompa (apparently not consulted in the writing of this paper) has an "answer" to that.

The author attempts to claim that the US was unique among the "art-importing countries" to join the Convention others "including Britain, Germany, and Japan, refused to join the Convention". Britain joined in 2002, Germany ratified it in 2007, Japan joined in 2002 ( France 1997, Switzerland 2003,and Belgium and Netherlands 2009). Poland and Canada were earlier than the US.

Vignette: Herbert L. Block "Position of Moral leadership" 1974.

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