Sunday, September 11, 2022

Cultural Property

After 13 years of sending out these Missives it is sometimes hard to remember that I had a life before. Reading an announcement from an Anthropological Institute and Museum that a member of their board of trustees had been appointed by President Biden to CPAC, no not The Conservative Political Action Conference but The President’s Cultural Property Advisory Committee! It brought to mind my own appointment to that Federal Committee by William Jefferson Clinton in 1995. “The Cultural Property Advisory Committee advises the President of the United States on appropriate U.S. action in response to requests from foreign governments for cultural property agreements. Cultural property agreements with other countries are collaborative tools to prevent illicit excavation and trade in cultural objects.”

For over 30 years in one form or another I was involved in the subject of Cultural Property. Being an art dealer and a board member or President of several art dealer associations, I was in a position to defend the profession as a legitimate one. Over the years the subject has become increasingly important as a hot political topic. Recent repatriations to a myriad of countries testify to that fact.

In July 2020 the Yale Law Review published an article by Nikita Lalwani called “State of the Art: How Cultural Property Became a National-Security Priority”. It explores the legislative history surrounding the passage of the Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act (1983), which implemented the (1970) UNESCO Convention in the United States. Lalwani states “the final version of the law reflected a compromise between those who wanted strong cultural-property protections and those who favored weaker ones”. In one case i testified before Congress on an issue related to these discussions. This quote from that article states one of my arguments: “… art collectors and others argued that the bill would do a disservice to great works of art. Great art might be destroyed if the bill forced the United States to return cultural property to its country of origin. According to Gerald G. Stiebel, a former president of the National Antique and Art Dealers Association of America, for example, “the market place”—as opposed to the U.S. government—was best placed to protect art. Art collectors were willing to “make the financial commitment” to ensure high-quality care, he said, and works that ended up in a museum would be safeguarded and preserved for the edification of the public.”

“Is Collecting Works of Art a Legitimate Pursuit” is the title of paper I wrote in 1997 after participating in a 5-day seminar on Cultural Property at the School for Advanced Research. In the excerpt below I again expressed my opposition to the principle that all art should be returned to its country of origin but do explain the other side of the argument.

“With the increased demand for archeological material by collectors and museums, the archaeologists became alarmed. They joined forces with governments in calling for the preservation of cultural heritage thus giving additional legitimacy to the concept that artifacts should not leave their country of origin. The archaeologists' argument is that when artifacts are removed from a site it destroys their context and therefore leaves the site incomprehensible for the purposes of understanding the past. While the archeologist has a valid claim that the context of an artifact should not be lost, to deny that an object can have aesthetic and even educational value on its own is being disingenuous.”

This Missive merely sets the stage for more blogs on the subject in the future. Who knows… maybe next week!

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