LA Times OpEd Distorts Both Archaeology and the Law

iStock_000003539805SmallAn op-ed on cultural patrimony laws in today’s Los Angeles Times has done a great disservice to the public by misrepresenting the purpose, history, impact, and very definition of such legislation.

In “The Archaeology Paradox: More Laws, Less Treasure,” Adam Wallwork argues that “tight restrictions on export and ownership of artifacts is leaving the world a poorer place.” Mr. Wallwork is not the first to call for a return to “the age of piracy,” in which tomb raiders could plunder archaeological sites with abandon (to borrow a phrase from Thomas Hoving, the Metropolitan Museum’s former director).  But he is the first, at least in a leading publication, to use this argument:

I surveyed 90 countries with one or more archaeological sites on UNESCO‘s World Heritage Site list, and my study shows that in most cases the number of discovered sites diminishes sharply after a country passes a cultural property law. There are 222 archaeological sites listed for those 90 countries. When you look into the history of the sites, you see that all but 21 were discovered before the passage of cultural property laws.

On average in art-rich countries, discoveries that landed on UNESCO’s list diminished by 90% after these laws were passed. To illustrate: Italy has seven archaeological sites on the World Heritage list; five were discovered before its 1909 cultural property law, but only two after.

Many variables may cause a drop-off in archaeological discoveries country by country, but statistically speaking, it’s nearly impossible that the decline shown in the data isn’t also related to the passage of cultural property laws.

This is a textbook case of mistaking correlation for causation. Yes, there are fewer archaeological discoveries in today’s world, especially of major ancient sites. However, there are fewer and fewer blank spaces on the map, too. And in fact, who can say that anyone ever “discovered” the Pyramids at Giza, the Acropolis in Athens, the Great Wall of China, or the vast majority of World Heritage nominations?

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Go On! DC Art Law Dinner One Week from Today. Register Here!

Go On! DC Art Law Dinner One Week from Today. Register Here!

The 3rd Annual Cultural Heritage and the Arts Dinner of the American Society of International Law (ASIL) is one week from today in Washington. Tickets cost $55 and include a three-course dinner at Cedar, voted one of DC’s best restaurants by the Washingtonian. The evening will give professionals, students, and members of the public a chance to interact and discuss the field of cultural heritage law. All are welcome. Registration is due by April 4 at the link above. 

 

Go On! Third Annual Cultural Heritage and the Arts Law Interest Group Dinner

DCThe Cultural Heritage and the Arts Interest Group (CHAIG) of the American Society of International Law (ASIL) invites you to its third annual dinner, which will take place on April 10 in Washington, DC.

While this event is hosted by CHAIG — and scheduled to correspond with the ASIL Annual Meeting/ILA Biennial Conference — all are welcome to attend. The dinner will give professionals, students, and members of the public a chance to interact and discuss the field of cultural heritage law.

Tickets cost $55 and include a three-course dinner at Cedar, voted one of DC’s best restaurants by the Washingtonian.

Registration is required by April 7, 2014.

For more information, visit the official website.

 

U.S. v. Cambodian Sculpture: 3 Years Later

U.S. v.  Cambodian Sculpture: 3 Years Later

Exactly 3 years ago today, this thousand year old Khmer masterpiece was put on the auction block at Sotheby’s, where it was expected to fetch $3 million. It was pulled from sale when Cambodia demanded its return, citing evidence it had been looted during the country’s bloody civil war. 6 weeks later, the US government filed a civil forfeiture action, seeking to recover and repatriate the statue. This litigation made headlines around the world, and was only resolved 3 months ago, when Sotheby’s settled. To learn more about the case — U.S. v. 10th-century Cambodian Sandstone Sculpture — click the photo and visit the New York Times.

Go On! Study Art Law at the Tulane-Siena Institute

ImageThe Tulane-Siena Institute for International Law, Cultural Heritage, and the Arts is now accepting applications for its 3 week summer course in Tuscany. The program is based in historic Siena, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and one of Italy’s most beloved tourist destinations. It runs from 3-27 June 2014, during which time students will earn five ABA credits, and have the opportunity to take the following classes:

• The International Legal Framework for the Protection of Art and Cultural Property
• From Black to Gray: The Markets in Stolen and Looted Art and Antiquities
• Beyond the Law: The Ethics of Collectors and Collections
• The Protection of Art in Times of Crisis: From War to Natural Disasters

While designed for law students, the Tulane-Siena Institute welcomes other graduate students and professionals, including practicing lawyers. Indeed attorneys may be eligible to earn six Continuing Legal Education (CLE) credits for each hour of academic credit awarded by the school. The application deadline is May 31, but apply now, as seats are limited.

To learn more and apply, visit the official website here.

The US Takes on Antiquities Trafficking (And Why You Should Care)

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A Cambodian boy looks across the Mekong Delta to the temple of Phnom Da.

As the World Economic Forum concludes, in an editorial on the Huffington Post, my colleague Mark Vlasic and I have urged the political leaders attending Davos to pay heed to an international criminal industry that is costing the world billions in financial losses, and more irreparably, destroying something with no price tag: our cultural heritage.

Right now looters are reducing countless ancient sites to rubble in their search for buried treasures to sell on the art market. The ensuing trafficking of antiquities and other stolen cultural objects reaches every corner of the globe, and experts fear, may be funding organized crime and terrorist groups. It is also a very attractive way to clean “dirty” assets in the face of otherwise strengthened anti-money laundering and counter-terrorism financing laws, which as former United States prosecutor Rick St. Hilaire notes, “are often limited when it comes to the trade in cultural property.”

For these very practical reasons, the U.S. Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), Department of Justice (DOJ), and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) — as well as foreign and international law enforcement such as Scotland Yard and Interpol — are now prioritizing their efforts to fight antiquities trafficking. U.S. agents and attorneys in particular have had a recent string of successes on this front. Just this month the federal government returned $1.5 million worth of plundered statues to India. And last month, it celebrated another victory when Sotheby’s Auction House agreed to repatriate a $3 million masterpiece to Cambodia, which had been hacked by thieves from a sacred temple during the country’s bloody civil war (both stories were reported by Tom Mashberg in the New York Times here and here).

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Repealing the 1971 Sorcery Act: A Solution to Papua New Guinea’s Witch Hunts?

DSC00647_2Global news outlets are reporting that yet another woman has been murdered by an angry mob for the “crime” of sorcery in the South Pacific island nation of Papua New Guinea. Helen Rumbali — described in the media as “a women’s rights advocate and former schoolteacher” — was reportedly tortured for three days and then beheaded by villagers while police, outnumbered and unarmed, helplessly watched on. The fate of her sister and teenage nieces, who were likewise branded witches and then carried off into the jungle by the crowd, is still unknown.

According to the New York Times, PNG “has come under increased international pressure to end what appears to be a growing trend of vigilante violence against people accused of sorcery.” Those of us who have worked in this beautiful, if troubled, country know the truth: the deaths of Rumbali and others like her are heartbreaking, but not surprising, in a land where tribal practices and even outright wars remain common and women are often second class citizens. If anything, witchcraft killings have decreased, even as reports of them have risen. But they may still number in the hundreds each year.

With the world’s attention now focused on what is literally a life or death issue in PNG, it is hoped that Rumbali will be the last victim. Amnesty International has escalated its campaign urging PNG to repeal the 1971 Sorcery Act, colonial-era legislation still on the books that seeks “to prevent and punish evil practices of sorcery and other similar evil practices.” The media promptly latched onto this cause, with headlines such as “PNG Considers Repealing Sorcery Law,” “PNG Prime Minister to Repeal Sorcery Law,”  and “PNG to Repeal Witchcraft Law.”

“Repeal the Sorcery Act!” makes for a good catchphrase, but it is not a good solution for protecting accused witches from mob violence and even murder in PNG. Continue reading