The cheap and easy way to gain diplomatic influence can cost individuals and vulnerable groups dearly
Cultural heritage Memoranda of Understanding are good for diplomacy but can damage the rights of citizens
As anyone from the art market involved in the international world of cultural heritage will know, dealers, auction houses, buyers and sellers have long been the unjustified targets of governments, NGOs and law enforcement.
The message has been that the looting and trafficking of cultural property from vulnerable nations – many of whom are in an almost permanent state of crisis or war – is funding terrorism. Stolen items smuggled to Western markets lead to a flow of cash in the other direction to pay for bombs and bullets, they argue.
The problem is that despite innumerable research projects, studies and other initiatives to show this over the past 20 years and more, evidence of the art market’s role in this is so thin on the ground as to be all but non-existent.
Independent studies, such as the ground-breaking RAND Corporation report of 2020, state that open source evidence clearly demonstrates that the antiquities market could not possibly sustain the billion-dollar level of international crime it is accused of fomenting.
This has not prevented bodies like the European Union, the United States Government and others competing for influence in strategically important countries like Egypt, Iraq and Syria from introducing proposal after proposal – so numerous that they seem to be falling over each other for precedence – to tackle the perceived problem.
Campaigner highlighting injustice
Collector and cultural property lawyer Peter Tompa has been at the vanguard in highlighting abuses of power and influence when it comes to policy in this field.
His latest article, published by Cultural Property News, shows how the US State Department has been harnessing bilateral agreements (Memoranda of Understanding) involving works of art and ancient artefacts to curry favour in geopolitics. In doing so, it is acting against the will of Congress and against the interests of private citizens, including vulnerable ethnic and religious groups, he believes.
At the heart of the problem is the fact that MoUs effectively reverse the burden of proof over the ownership of cultural property at the point of import; you’re guilty until deemed innocent. Importers to the United States must secure a current licence from the source country covered by the MoU confirming that the imported item in question was originally exported legally from there, whenever that might have been – and it could have been centuries ago.
So, this would apply to a Roman vase that could have left Italy during the 18th century, having been purchased by a wealthy young man on the Grand Tour, and has since changed hands and moved countries numerous times. How likely is it that the current importer would hold paperwork from that original sale and export that would convince the Italian authorities to issue such a licence? But that is what Article 1 of theMoU with Italy stipulates if Customs are not to seize the vase and send it back to Italy.
Similar agreements are in place with 30 other nations, from China to Yemen.
Tompa has previously highlighted the fact that MoUs can also deprive vulnerable minority groups, such as the expelled Jews of Libya, of their moral and legal rights in reclaiming their cultural patrimony. Instead, under the terms of the MoU, objects are returned to these peoples’ oppressors in the states from which they have been expelled or subjugated.
So, how can the State Department justify this rapid spread of these agreements?
Lack of funding for archaeologists has forced many of them to earn a living doing something else, Tompa notes. “Thanks to government largess, however, lucrative new opportunities have arisen for a select few archaeologists working with State Department bureaucrats to help justify cultural property Memorandums of Understanding (MoUs) or “emergency import restrictions.”
‘Jihad against private ownership’
For many, this is an easy choice to make: “Not surprisingly, such work often draws those most committed to the view that cultural artifacts should be clawed back from U.S. collectors and museums for the benefit of countries that have been victimized in the past by Western colonialism. Most collectors, dealers and museum curators have no idea about all the State Department money that is funding this jihad against the private ownership of cultural goods in the U.S.”
Tompa looks at who is running what he describes as a “cottage industry”.
“The U.S. State Department Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) and its Cultural Heritage Center have done more than anyone to grow this new cottage industry through grants and contracts as part of their ‘soft power’ efforts that seek to make hostile third world governments ‘like us more’,” he writes.
He also explains how the State Department circumvents restrictions imposed by Congress on the former’s ability to exploit MoUs for its own ends.
As always, following the money provides a clearer picture. The State Department needs better evidence of looting and trafficking to justify MoUs. It also needs to show that recipient source countries have appropriate controls in place to protect their cultural patrimony.
Tompa notes that critics have asked how much of an incentive those being funded have to come up with what the State Department wants. He describes the long-established American Society of Overseas Research (ASOR) as a major grant recipient and “evidence maker” for some of the most difficult to justify MoUs and cites examples of how those receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding may be creating false narratives to suit the State Department’s purposes.
Tompa provides several examples of concerning behaviour, in one case citing an archaeologist associated with ASOR, working under a $600,000 State Department contract, who was identified as the source for a widely reported false claim that the ISIS terror group’s profits from antiquities looting were “second only to the revenue the group derives from illicit oil sales”.
Where is the media on this?
This is explosive stuff and a potentially dream investigation for any curious journalist worth their salt, involving, as it does, vast sums of money, Washington insiders and international policy that favours countries with questionable human rights records. So far, though, both the mainstream and leading art market media outlets have remained silent, leaving experts likes Tompa to do all the heavy lifting. This is curious when one considers how frequently and keenly the widespread media reports any example (alleged or actual) of crime involving cultural property.
The harnessing of such bilateral agreements for geopolitical gain – with art traders and private citizens paying the price – has long been a subject of concern. Could fear among journalists of falling out with influential advocacy groups who act as regular story sources be the reason for their apparent lack of interest?
This hands-off approach from hacks may be emboldening the State department. Tompa writes: “The State Department acting as both decision maker and facilitator for cultural property MoUs raises other concerns. More recently, the State Department has dropped all pretense of following the intent of the CPIA (Cultural Property Implementation Act) by showering additional funding on archaeologists to facilitate new and renewed cultural property MoUs.”
What we are seeing on a widespread basis is not the development of evidence-based policy, but policy-based evidence as the stakes rise among MENA nations and in the Far East, as well as in Central and South America. Security, diplomatic influence and other issues may be the real concerns, but cultural heritage Memoranda of Understanding are the currency by which a favourable position can easily and inexpensively be achieved. While that is understandable, the conditions under which they are being issued raise serious ethical, moral – and in the case of the U.S. Constitutional – questions, particularly about the rights of citizens and vulnerable groups, as well as fundamental principles of law.
Let’s not forget that the same U.S. citizens having their goods seized are also unwittingly funding this unjust process.So far, no one in authority has made any serious challenge to this process. It is about time that changed.