A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Aiding unethical antiquities dealers
A primary purpose of the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting the Illicit Import, Export, and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, to which the United States became a State Party only in 1983 with the passage of the Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act (CCPIA), is to discourage the pillaging of cultural property from archaeological sites. Countries that are party to the convention can request that the U.S. impose import restrictions on categories of archaeological and ethnological material when the cultural patrimony of the requesting country is endangered. In the U.S. these requests are sent to the Cultural Property Advisory Committee (CPAC), an 11-member body appointed by the president whose role it is to review such requests from foreign governments and submit recommendations to the U.S. State Department.
Recently the integrity of both the CCPIA and the CPAC have been challenged by congressional and presidential actions. With the support of the art dealer community, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-NY) has proposed amendments to the CCPIA (S.1696). One amendment would allow the U.S. to impose import restrictions only when particular objects of cultural patrimony are endangered, contrary to the UNESCO Convention, which considers cultural patrimony as a whole. While the looting of individual objects is to be decried, it is the loss of cultural context that irreparably damages cultural patrimony. Another amendment would limit consideration of historical evidence of pillage during CPAC's deliberations. Yet, shouldn't knowledge of how much of a country's heritage has already been lost be an important element in deliberations regarding import restrictions? Finally, the bill seeks to weaken CPAC by changing the requirement that appointees to the committee "be expert" in the fields of archaeology, anthropology, and ethnology, and in the international sale of cultural property, to the much less rigorous qualification that they merely "represent" these fields. Such a provision would also remove members of CPAC from the conflict of interest review they currently undergo as special government employees. In addition, the loss of expertise among committee members could lead to partisan political debate rather than judicious review of the evidence.
Recently CPAC has come under intense public scrutiny as the result of President Clinton's appointment of Shelby White, a voracious collector of antiquities who has been sued on at least one occasion for the return of looted cultural property. White's active collecting from throughout the world suggests that she could find herself with a conflict of interest during committee deliberations. Are the proposed amendment to eliminate the conflict of interest review and White's appointment a coincidence? Is it also a coincidence that both were initiated by Moynihan, the recipient of generous campaign contributions from White and her financier husband, Leon Levy?
Although White was appointed as one of three representatives of the general public on the CPAC, her collecting practices certainly would not meet with the public's approval. In a recent survey undertaken by Harris Interactive, 92% of respondents indicated that American museums and individuals should not be able to purchase antiquities that were removed from their country of origin without that country's permission. Yet among the antiquities in the Levy-White collection is the upper half of a statue known as the "Weary Herakles," the bottom half of which is on display in the Antalya (Turkey) Museum. Casts of the two fragments reveal that the break is fresh and that the two fragments join. The government of Turkey believes that the statue was looted about 1980 and has traced the Levy-White fragment through the Munich dealer from whom they acquired it. Levy and White have refused to consider restitution, leaving Turkey's request for the statue's recovery "on hold." White's appointment to CPAC should have the same status.
Nancy C. Wilkie is the president of the Archaeological Institute of America.