Web edition: March 13, 2009
Print edition: March 28, 2009; Vol.175 #7 (p. 32)
Treaty on antiquities hinders access for museums
James Cuno, a past president of the Association of Art Museum Directors, has spent years investigating implications of a United Nations treaty: the Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. It prohibits museums and other research centers from acquiring objects unearthed after 1970 without permission from the country of origin. Such permission is seldom granted, Cuno notes in his new book, Who Owns Antiquity? Last month, senior editor Janet Raloff spoke about the treaty with Cuno at The Art Institute of Chicago, where he is the director.
What was the effect of the UNESCO 1970 treaty on looting of archaeological sites?
It hasn’t stopped looting. In fact, from what we hear, looting is increasing.
Looting is not a leisure pastime. People don’t decide to become a looter rather than being a lawyer. They are desperate people doing desperate things. In situations of a failed economy, a failed government, the absence of civil society, internecine warfare, sectarian violence, drought — whatever — conditions emerge that can create pressures for looting. Simply criminalizing the illegal acquisition of goods won’t stop looting. It hasn’t stopped the trade in drugs or trade in stolen materials of any kind.
How has the treaty affected researchers, especially their ability to buy or accept the donation of ancient artifacts?
UNESCO 1970 has encouraged the development of national protectionist property laws. Artifacts excavated after 1970 belong to the [nation] states in which they were found. And these nations have almost always enacted ownership or export laws that prohibit the legal sale or export of such objects. So if we know something was excavated after 1970, we cannot acquire it.
More often, you don’t know where an item is from or when it was unearthed. Even if it has documentation indicating it was found before 1970, you have to try and substantiate whether that provenance is accurate before you can consider acquiring it.
So an important artifact with dubious provenance for sale on the open market, available for anyone else to buy, isn’t available to foreign researchers?
Right. So fewer and fewer things are entering into the public domain.
These export constraints are creating black markets. And like water on a leaky roof, looted artifacts are finding the path of least resistance to a buyer somewhere. I’ve heard they’re going to the Arab Emirates and Asia. What I can tell you is that they’re not coming to museums in the United States and Europe [which adhere to UNESCO 1970].
You say that the treaty gives “a false view of history.” How so?
The preface of UNESCO 1970 implies there is no difference between the nationals of a modern state and the ancient peoples that made things that have been excavated from the soils of modern states. The argument seems to be that these people share a “collective genius”—one that might be racial or ethnic or cultural. And that the shared genius is particular to the people, both ancient and modern. But that argument was made by politicians, not by scientists.
In fact, I question whether any culture has ever been autonomous.
Take the Roman Empire. It not only emulated Greek culture, but had contacts throughout at least North Africa, the Near East and East Asia all of the way to China. Which means it was a mongrel culture. To now claim a kind of cultural purity exists between it and people inhabiting Italy today is an oxymoron.
The treaty seeks to keep wealthy nations from raiding the cultural history of poorer ones in the name of science. What’s wrong with that argument?
It perpetuates this false view or sentiment that things are appreciated better if they are encountered where they were made. But sometimes things are better appreciated if they can be compared and contrasted with similar artifacts from other cultures and geographic regions. Which argues for some sharing.
Preventing the export of ancient cultural artifacts also greatly concentrates the risk to their survival. We know the damage that can be done by warfare and sectarian violence. And I don’t just mean in Baghdad and Kabul, where those museums were virtually destroyed, but also in Berlin. Even New York on 9/11.
We don’t know where violence is going to occur. But an insurance appraiser would tell you: You want to distribute your risk from catastrophic damage by keeping things in multiple places.
In your book you talk about how the practice of partage [sharing] has fallen from favor. Would you advocate its return?I would—in a second—because it seems to me the only reasonable way to protect the legacy of antiquities and promote a global understanding of what they represent.