A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Should U.S. courts respect foreign laws?
The indictment in New York federal court of prominent art dealer Frederick Schultz on charges of conspiring to receive and possess stolen Egyptian antiquities is a significant step in the fight to protect the world's cultural heritage. If convicted, Schultz, a past president of the National Association of Dealers in Ancient, Oriental, and Primitive Art, could be fined $250,000 or twice the gross gain or loss resulting from the crime, whichever is greater, and sentenced to prison for up to five years.
Schultz's co-conspirator, Jonathan Tokeley-Parry, was recently released from jail in Britain after serving a three-year sentence for smuggling more than 3,000 antiquities out of Egypt during the 1990s. Using his skills as an antiquities restorer, he camouflaged priceless artifacts as cheap reproductions to avoid being caught violating a 1983 Egyptian law declaring all antiquities, especially those still in the ground, to be state property. (Only ancient Egyptian objects in private hands prior to 1983 can be legally bought and sold.) To escape scrutiny by British authorities, the objects were shipped to the Zurich airport's duty-free zone, where Tokeley-Parry collected them.
One piece Tokeley-Parry doctored was a sculpture of Amenhotep III (ca. 1403-1354 B.C.), which he had disguised by dipping in clear liquid plastic and covering with gold leaf and black paint. After its arrival, he assigned it a false provenance, the Thomas Alcock Collection, to make it appear that the sculpture had left Egypt before 1983. Eventually the piece made its way to Schultz, who in 1992 sold it to a London collector for $1.2 million, after first attempting to sell it to the Cleveland Museum of Art.
In justifying their actions, dealers and collectors argue that most nations that are sources of antiquities cannot adequately protect and preserve them. During his trial, an unrepentant Tokeley-Parry declared, "Beautiful objects have always been moving around the world, following the new sources of power and wealth. It seems to me that as long as these objects are where the power is, and where the wealth is, they will be cared for." Archaeologists, on the other hand, point out that immeasurable damage results from the loss of context when sites are looted.
A central issue of the case is whether or not courts in the United States should recognize the 1983 Egyptian law. Schultz's lawyer recently filed a motion for dismissal on the grounds that U.S. courts should not. In the belief that such laws were enacted in Egypt and other countries to reduce the incentives for looting archaeological sites, the Archaeological Institute of America has petitioned the judge for permission to file an amicus brief. Joining the AIA were the Society for American Archaeology, the Society for Historical Archaeology, the American Anthropological Association, and the U.S. National Committee of the International Council on Monuments and Sites. Working together, we hope to preserve the world's cultural heritage so that future generations also have the opportunity to learn from and appreciate the past.
Nancy C. Wilkie is the president of the Archaeological Institute of America.