The United States Department of State has proposed a renewal of its current Memorandum of Understanding (“MOU”) with the Hellenic Republic (Greece) for another five (5) years. Once again, individuals will be afforded an opportunity to comment on whether the MOU should be extended.
ADCAEA believes the MOU is not working to achieve the principles proposed by its governing legislation. There is no evidence to support the position that the current MOU has deterred illegal excavation within Greece, nor have there been any reports of seizures at US borders of any culturally significant material thought to have been illegally excavated in Greece in recent years. Furthermore, its interpretation by U.S. federal authorities often prevents the legal importation of common artifacts freely traded on the legitimate commercial market.
Is the existing MOU working?
ADCAEA acknowledges there is a history of objects belonging to Greece being stolen, destroyed or illegally sold and this has created a universal determination to keep Greece’s cultural heritage intact by means of legislation and enforcement.
Domestic and international legislation for the protection of archaeological and numismatic objects should strike a balance between the need to protect the heritage, rights of owners and the encouragement of a thriving art market.
ADCAEA believes the protection and preservation of cultural objects for future generations is essential. The efforts of private collectors and museums is vital to the preservation of archaeological objects by promoting further scientific, cultural and educational study of our inherited cultural history. U.S. art collectors and museums are major sponsors for the excavation, scholarship, and preservation of ancient sites across the world. Whether currently residing in public or private collections, this material carries legitimate collection history, is lawfully on the commercial market and subject to private ownership in Greece. In its paper, “Art Museums, Private Collectors and the Public Benefit” (January, 2007) the Association of Art Museum Directors states “More than 90% of the art collections held in public trust by America’s art museums were donated by private individuals”.
The U.S. governing statute 2602 requires that restrictions made by it be consistent with the “general interest of the international community in the interchange of cultural property among nations for scientific, cultural, and educational purposes”.
However, misapplication of the MOU import restrictions has disadvantaged and discouraged U.S. dealers and collectors by wrongly restricting their ability to freely engage in the scientific, cultural and educational exchange of archaeological and numismatic objects.
19 U.S.C. 2604 and the provisions of the 1970 UNESCO Convention, codified into U.S. law as the Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act, gave rise to the bilateral agreement with Greece in December 2011 to protect archaeological objects of “cultural significance” “first discovered within” and “subject to the export control” of Greece.
However, these principles have been distorted to embargo the importation of common artifacts traded on the legitimate commercial market in the US, Europe and in particular within Greece. The list of restricted items found at 76 Fed. Reg. 3012 (Jan. 19, 2011) includes, regardless of cultural or monetary value, common archaeological and numismatic objects that possess no special or rare features of form, size, material, decoration, inscription or iconography thus reducing legal and commercial trade. These objects exist in numerous quantities, were exchanged over substantial geographical areas in antiquity that now encompass many nations, and cannot be realistically deemed of any cultural, historical, or scientific importance to Greece. Furthermore, collectors in the EU, including Greece, have no similar restrictions when importing archeological and numismatic material. Cultural objects can be freely imported into Greek territory provided the provisions of the Paris Convention of 1970 as well as other rules of international law are not violated.
Remedies less drastic than the application of the restrictions set forth in the MOU should be considered, such as a system akin to the the UK Treasure Act and Portable Antiquities Scheme; a voluntary program run by the United Kingdom government to record the increasing numbers of small finds of archaeological interest discovered by members of the public. Many previously unknown archaeological sites have been identified through this scheme and it has contributed greatly to the level of knowledge of the past.
ADCAEA is concerned with current public opinion concerning unsubstantiated claims that “too many of those stolen works end up in the United States, where unethical middlemen earn vast profits from their sale”. Such misinformation is echoed by the international press whose unlimited appetite for sensationalism and mayhem is fed by the anti-trade enthusiasts thereby impacting government decisions. ADCAEA recognizes and agrees with the importance of ensuring cultural material remains within its country of origin and our strict code of conduct requires that looted and illegal objects are not to be knowingly handled by the legal trade. Ethical issues aside, these objects have no commercial value and are therefore not worth dealing with.
Members of our Association have had personal experience whereby current restrictions have prevented the legal importation of common artifacts traded on the legitimate commercial market. The ADCAEA therefore recommends the Memorandum of Understanding with Greece not be extended in its current form.
However, ADCAEA would support the extension of the MOU with the following amendments:
Legal Import with EU Documentation: The legal import into the United States of archaeological and numismatic objects of the sort lawfully available for sale in the E.U. when they are accompanied by an EU export permit or other documentation evidencing legal export from an EU member state.
Customs Limitations: An emphasis on the fact that U.S. federal authorities are unauthorized to detain shipments when “satisfactory information”, as defined by the statute, has been provided. U.S. federal authorities are implementing an ad hoc anti-trade policy whereby objects are assumed to be “stolen” without proof of the circumstances and subsequently seized. “Seizure of an object can result in forfeiture and repatriation based on an alleged breach of foreign law, without any proof of critical facts, foreign law or the merits of the claim.”
Restricted Items: Modify the list of list of restricted items to exclude common archaeological and numismatic objects that possess no special or rare features of form, size, material, decoration, inscription or iconography that can be shown to have a legitimate history of trade on the legal commercial market.
Education: By the time an object has reached the United States, archaeological context has been lost. It is therefore necessary for the Greek government to provide greater public awareness as to the importance of antiquities, whereby local people help protect important sites and they are supported by a police force trained to view illegal excavations as a high priority. Public awareness is a field where Greece still has much need of additional investment.
Further official information about a May 24, 2016 Cultural Property Advisory Committee meeting and how to comment by the May 9, 2016 deadline can be found here: