Wednesday 21 April 2010

My letter to CPAC concerning the Italy MOU Extension

Here, for what it is worth is what I wrote today to the CPAC. It is far too long, verbose and rather pompous, but I did not have time to shorten it (but they said "maximum five pages, it could have been worse!). I tried to get in some buzz words from the Convention itself and the State Department webpage concerning what the CPIA is actually for. I also took some of the views of the opponents of the MOU extension and turned them round. I do not think it makes much difference, cynic that I am, most likely an office junior now takes the whole lot (pro and con) home at the weekend qwith a highlighter and is asked to pick out some phrases which might be quoted in their report to make it look as if they did some real wide grassroots consulting.

Ms. Katherine L. Reid
Chair, Cultural Property Advisory Committee
United States Department of State
Annex 5, 2200 C Street, NW
Washington, DC 20522-0505

Re: Italy MOU Extension (Article 9 of the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property)

Dear Ms Reid,
As a concerned archaeologist based in Europe, I am writing to request that the CPAC recommends that the United States extends the MOU with Italy on the imposition of import restrictions on “categories of archaeological material representing the pre-Classical, Classical and Imperial Roman periods of Italy’s threatened cultural heritage”.

It is widely recognised that states have moral obligations to respect their own cultural heritage and that of all other nations. In many countries, commercial looting of the European archaeological record to supply the international portable antiquities market is one of the many threats with which this finite and fragile resource is faced. The importance of the establishment of effective legislative and treaty provisions aimed at curbing illicit traffic in such archaeological artefacts cannot therefore be overstressed. In the past American collectors, dealers and museums created an enormous demand for these items and the United States of America arguably played a major role in the illicit trafficking of antiquities.

When, in January 2001, the US entered this bilateral agreement with Italy on the basis of the Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act it indicated that it is willing to take the global lead in the protection of this part of the common cultural heritage. The agreement has also had a positive effect in aiding the protection of the cultural heritage of one of the countries most seriously negatively affected by the ongoing trade in illicit antiquities and strengthening the role of legitimate trading practices.

The recent much publicised returns to Italy of items of cultural property from both public and private collections which had been illegally exported from that country, as well as seizures in Italy of looted material by the Carabinieri's Tutela Patrimonio Culturale department in Italy itself are adequate witness to the need to maintain vigilance. As has the repeated and vociferous calls of a certain section of the US antiquities dealers lobby to whip up resistance to the extension of the MOU, which they claim restricts their “rights” to trade in antiquities without regard to their legal origins (and even to sue the US government to achieve that aim). The CPAC will decide whether the public expression of such attitudes is in the ultimate interests of the cultural heritage, and perceptions of the position of the US in the world.

It is clear that the measures adopted by the US in January 2001 have been having a real effect on hindering the illicit transfer of cultural properties and – what is more important - encouraging legitimate collecting and more ethical dealing in the international marketplace. The bilateral agreement has also created firmer foundations for closer international co-operation in the field of mutually beneficial cultural exchange arrangements and in facilitating the preservation, analysis and dissemination of knowledge of the past. The agreement has therefore already reaped numerous benefits for both sides. The arguments seem clear therefore for continuing to respect this agreement as part of the process of fostering mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries and to promote friendly, and peaceful relations.

The cultural patrimony of Italy is still in jeopardy from the commercial pillage of archaeological sites for collectables which are then illegally exported. This is despite strenuous efforts which Italy has taken to prevent such damage. The continued application of the import restrictions by the USA as set forth in CPIA section 307 with respect to archaeological material from Italy would be of substantial benefit in deterring a serious situation of pillage, and is consistent with the general interest of the international community in the fostering of a legitimate market in collectables as well as the sustainable interchange of cultural property among nations for cultural, scientific and educational purposes.

Nevertheless to be fully effective, the MOU extension must recognize that the trade in antiquities (ie archaeological objects) has changed dramatically since the days when the Convention was drafted and the Italy MOU first signed. The development of portable metal detectors in the 1970s and 1980s and especially the rise of Internet trading in the mid 1990s has led to revolutionary changes in the scale and scope of the industry. This in turn has led to changes in the damage done to supply it and the ability of criminal elements to profit from the traffic in illicit artefacts by more easily covering their tracks.

The basis of the market today is not a restricted number of well known big dealers traded openly in limited numbers of major artworks from bricks and mortar galleries in major centres which were easy to police. Today the trade is largely decentralised in the hands of a shifting network of traders and collectors who are buying and selling objects indiscriminately and clandestinely by means of the Internet.

These traders now offer a much expanded clientele a wide range of ‘minor’ artefacts, many of them recovered by the indiscriminate and illegal use of metal detectors on archaeological sites in southern Europe which while there is a (‘no-questions-asked’) market for such items becomes a viable and lucrative activity. Many of these artefacts, illegally taken out of the country in bulk lots, are sold to foreign dealers who then split them into smaller lots for resale. A major market is the US.

One of the categories of minor finds that is particularly sought are ancient coins of bronze, silver and gold. Items such as these are specifically mentioned in Article 1 (c ) to (e) of the 1970 Convention. Clearly it would be an effective aid to combating the illegal exploitation of archaeological sites in Italy to produce these collectables to curtail by import restrictions the ability of unscrupulous dealers in the US to sell items of this nature illegally exported from Italy. It would therefore weaken the efficiency of the MOU as a tool to curb looting if coins were specifically excluded from its measures, while other metal objects such as personal ornaments are included.

I therefore respectfully request that the MoU be extended
Paul Barford [...]

And how appropriate it is that the period of public consultation which rapacious dealers and indiscriminate collectors are so worked up about ends on April 22nd, Earth Day, when we all think about the conservation and sustainable use of our planet's fragile and finite resources. More on that tomorrow.

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