Thursday 13 May 2010

Maya artefacts, MOUs and "Unrestricted Collectors' Rights"

Dan Vergano:'Maya Artefracts Returned After Customs Bust', USA Today (12th May 2010):
Federal officials returned looted Maya antiquities Wednesday to the government of El Salvador."The United States will return several pre-Columbian artifacts to the Government of El Salvador after the first joint, concurrent investigation by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the National Civilian Police of El Salvador," after customs officials spotted the looted antiquities, according to an ICE statement released Tuesday. The artifacts include pottery and figurines, "many of them authenticated as Mayan in origin," according to ICE officials. The Classic Maya built urban centers across Central America, a way of life that collapsed after 800 A.D. Looting of archaeological sites and sales of artifacts bedevil efforts by scholars to investigate the vanished civilization. At the Washington D.C. embassy handoff, El Salvador's ambassador, Francisco Altschul, took possession of the items from Alonzo Pena, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The 45 pre-Columbian objects recovered some of which were on display at the ceremony were seized by CBP and ICE in Miami and in a separate ICE investigation in Denver involving a consignment store and online sales. They were destined to go to private collectors in cities around the United States. The Salvadoran ring which was illegally exporting these items to these collectors also had clients in Japan, England and France.

The main investigation involving ICE agents in Miami, Atlanta, Tampa and St. Paul and CBP officers in Miami began three years ago, when a Customs and Border Protection agent at a Miami mail facility noticed what appeared to be pre-Columbian artifacts coming into the United States through the mail and destined for Alabama.
Ultimately, El Salvador arrested and had prosecuted a man and wife who were advertising Mayan and pre-Columbian artifacts on sales sites such as E-Bay and selling to customers around the world. There were no Mayan antiquities registered to their names, as required by Salvadoran law. The U.S. investigation is still ongoing. All of the items seized in this investigation are covered by the export restrictions put in place in 1995 by El Salvador under a Memorandum of Agreement with the U.S. Department of State that is designed to curb the pillage of the El Salvador's heritage.

Events such as this invite us to consider why US antiquity collectors and dealers are so worried about such MOUs which prompt customs officers to look at the documentation of antiquity imports and where they come from. They say these restrictions affect their "collectors' rights", what property rights do they claim to have over stolen and illegally exported items?

At the handover ceremony, Deputy Assistant Secretary Pena said of private collectors buying such items and importing them to the USA:
"We are celebrating today the fruitful collaboration of all our agencies in protecting the cultural heritage of the people of Latin America [...] More than that, we are honoring the dedication of our law enforcement officers in working together to find the culprits in this Internet scheme, stop the leeching of priceless pieces of El Salvador's history and bring those responsible to justice. This is another step in our long partnership with El Salvador".
Let it be noted that this is one of few cases in the US news recently where we hear that the chain of criminal action was traced back to the source and arrests were made. This is a reminder that the people buying illegally excavated and illegally exported artefacts - even if they themselves are breaking no laws in their own country - are willingly dealing with criminals. But let us also note that the people complicit in the criminal act, the ones funding it, escaped punishment - besides not receiving the items they bought.

At the handover ceremony, Ambassador Altschul stressed the international relations aspects:
"This morning the governments of El Salvador and the United States have sent a strong message to the international traffickers of archaeological artifacts looted from El Salvador: we are determined to fight this illegal practice which undermines the culture of our [...] Just two months ago, on March 2nd, our governments extended for an additional period of five years, an important Memorandum of Understanding that prohibits illegal imports into the United States of archaeological material from the Salvadoran pre-Columbian culture. These archaeological pieces will return to our country and will remain in custody of the Salvadoran people for the benefit and enjoyment of the world".
One wonders despite efforts to enforce U.S. customs law just how many artefacts from San Salvador and neighbouring countries routinely pass through the barrier of bubbles at the US borders (especially that penetrated by padded envelopes merely mailed from one place to another). There is a thriving trade in such items (some of it advertised by US dealers on Yahoo's AncientArtifacts forum for example) and many collectors, just what do they have stashed away in those perdsonal collections, and where did they really come from and how did they leave the country of origin?

Perhaps it would be useful to hear the reaction of collectors' rights groups such as the ACCG to this seizure under the MOU of illegally exported 'minor' artefacts destined to go to could-not-care-less US Pre-Columbian artefact collectors. Do they also condemn the State Department for extending this MOU, or are they acquiescent merely because it does not restrict the buying habits of coin collectors? How do they see the relationship between their US members no-questions-buying coins from source countries through the Internet and mail and the US collectors no-questions-buying pots and broken figurines from source countries through the Internet and mail ? There have been calls within the ACCG to withdraw from the 1970 UNESCO Convention on Illegal transfer of ownership of cultural property, to allow collectors like those dealing with the ring from San Salvador to buy ancient objects without any hindrance whatsoever. Do they not see this as damaging? I think in order to understand their position, we need to hear the answers to such questions about where the coineys see their demands fitting into the greater scheme of things. [Maybe Mr Vergano would like to interest himself in this question, he has my phone number].

Photo: One stolen and smuggled archaeological artefact taken out of the US no-questions-asked market and saved from being lost in an undocumented and ephemeral personal collection (photo ICE).

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