In what is arguably the most significant article on cultural heritage in the past month, Peter Tompa’s Art Newspaper comment on July 22 explains what is wrong with US policy and how to begin to put it right.
Tompa, a cultural heritage lawyer and the executive director of the Global Heritage Alliance, analyses the United States’ approach to cultural policy and how that affects attitudes and the market.
At the heart of his argument is the need to deal with the in-built bias against the market among the advisory and decision-making bodies that help formulate policy in the US. He targets, in particular, Memoranda of Understanding that ramp up import restrictions come up against Constitutional rights.
“These restrictions deeply concern collectors and the trade because they do not focus only on artefacts proven to be illicitly exported, but also embargo any items of a similar type that enter the US from legitimate markets, particularly those in Europe,” Tompa writes.
While this can affect legitimate market activity, dealers and collectors are not the only interested parties here: “…recent MOUs with some Middle Eastern and North African governments, such as Turkey and Egypt, have riled the representatives of displaced minority religious and ethnic groups, whose personal and community property has been seized by those same authoritarian governments.”
Tompa acknowledges that the US rightly has a significant duty to take a leading role in fighting the looting of cultural objects, especially as part of its recognition of ethnic and religious minorities. But he argues that this can be done in a more effective way that is also less damaging to legitimate market interests.
Firstly to broaden the representation on Washington’s influential Cultural Property Advisory Committee (CPAC). Currently, it has no market professional on it. “The sole representative of the trade is a collector, and no dealers have been appointed to the committee for years,” he explains.
Import embargoes are also too broad and bloated rather than targeted at where the potential problem lies, and they do not help protect vulnerable sites. The incoming US Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, Lee Satterfield, who will oversee this sector “should refocus current import restrictions back to narrow ranges of culturally significant items that have proven to be illicitly exported,” argues Tompa.
His third priority is for the US government to give at least as much consideration in policy formation to ethnic minorities and exiles living abroad as it does to foreign state interests.
“The assumption that nations are great protectors of cultural property is all too often misplaced,” he writes. “In countries where minorities have been driven into exile by authoritarian governments, it makes no sense to recognise the rights of those governments to the material culture of displaced communities.”
How far Tompa’s concerns will be listened to is not clear. What is clear, however, is that cultural property protection is not a standalone issue; it is clearly tied up with international economic and political interests that can dictate policy in what is an area of soft-power diplomacy. Because of this, the valid public interests within the cultural sphere continue to be at risk.