Re: [Unidroit-L] China import ban stirs debate
- In a message dated 4/1/2005 5:17:01 AM Central Standard Time, jackben@... writes:
China's Request for Art-Import Ban Stirs Debate
By RANDY KENNEDY Published: April 1, 2005
s art dealers and collectors are descending on New York for the auctions, shows and lavish parties surrounding Asia Week, the attention of many is focused elsewhere - on Washington, where the Bush administration is now considering restrictions on the importation of Chinese art and antiquities that could have serious implications for American museums and auction houses.
Chinese officials have asked the State Department to impose the restrictions, on a wide range of artifacts from the prehistoric period through the early 20th century, because they believe that demand in the United States for Chinese antiquities has helped fuel a sharp increase in looting of archaeological sites and even thefts from museums over the last several years.
Currently, United States Customs officials can reject the importation of items from China that are suspected of having been stolen or looted, but in practice relatively few items are seized. Under the proposed restrictions, which would most likely be made as part of a bilateral treaty, many artworks and artifacts could be prevented from entering unless they were specifically approved for export by the Chinese government.
The request has sparked an impassioned debate in the Asian-art world, in which many prominent archaeologists, preservationists and scholars have lined up to support the Chinese government, while many antiquities dealers and museum officials argue that the changes would be unfair, ineffective in stopping looting and devastating for the art market and for museums.
Opponents of the restrictions say that the United States represents only one part of a thriving international market for Chinese artifacts, including growing demand among wealthy collectors in China itself. And they contend that China has not done enough within its own borders to protect its cultural patrimony - a key requirement under a 1983 United States art-importation law that offers help to countries that can show they are working to protect their cultural heritage in keeping with a 1970 United Nations agreement.
"The statutory requirements have not been met - it's as simple as that," said Ashton Hawkins, a former lawyer for the Metropolitan Museum of Art and now president of the American Council for Cultural Policy, a New York-based group of museum officials and prominent art collectors. "Until they are, this remedy should not be offered to China."
But supporters of stricter laws argue that China has made great strides in recent years in protecting archaeological and other cultural sites and in prosecuting pillagers, many of whom sell antiquities to smugglers for a tiny fraction of the price the items eventually fetch at foreign auctions. The supporters acknowledge that the United States is only one player in the world market, but they contend that it would set a powerful example by helping China stem the flow of plundered artifacts.
"The U.S. is a major market for the purchase of these antiquities that have been illegally dug up and illegally exported from China, and the United States ought to be leading the way on this," said Robert E. Murowchick, director of the International Center for East Asian Archaeology and Cultural History at Boston University. "Once a site is gone, it's gone forever. You can't put it back together."
The looting of thousands of antiquities from Iraq since the American invasion in 2003 has heightened international concern about the threats to many countries' cultural treasures. Over the last few years, the trade in plundered Chinese artifacts has also drawn more attention in the United States because of several high-profile cases, including one in 2000 in which customs officials seized a 10th-century marble relief panel they said had been chiseled from an ancient tomb in northeastern China and was scheduled be sold at Christie's.
Opponents of the changes argue that the United States may make up only 4 percent of international auction sales of Chinese antiquities, but some dealers say that a much larger percentage of such items sold around the world end up in the United States, a contention echoed in an interview yesterday with an official in China's State Administration of Cultural Heritage, which works to protect antiquities. "The U.S. is a big part of this market," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The 1983 law, in conjunction with the 1970 Unesco agreement, allows countries to ask the United States to restrict the import of cultural objects as a way to try to stop such pillaging. Over the last several years, 11 countries, including Cambodia and Mali, have been granted import restrictions under the law, which does not cover items that can be proved to have left their countries of origin before the curbs took effect.
China's request is now being considered by a committee made up of 11 people - including representatives from academia, the art trade and the museum world - appointed by the White House to advise the State Department. There is no deadline for the panel to make a decision and, because most hearings and deliberations are closed to the public, there are also few indications of what the group may recommend. But China is unlikely to get everything it wants. For one thing, the 1983 law covers only cultural items at least 250 years old, so the 19th- and early-20th-century art China is seeking to protect is highly unlikely to be included in any treaty. And in previous cases with other countries, the committee and the State Department have not always granted all the requested import curbs - for example, leaving out certain categories like coins or restricting items only from certain periods.
The debate over the issue has illuminated what some see as a growing rift between museums and archaeologists over the proper ways of studying and preserving antiquities. Directors of four American museums - the Art Institute of Chicago, the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo. - spoke out against China's request at a hearing in February on the issue. While officials from the Metropolitan Museum of Art did not attend, James C. Y. Watt, chairman of the Met's Asian art department, has in interviews been highly critical of archaeologists and their calls for tougher import restrictions.
"Archaeologists have overemphasized their own importance and used the present political and social atmosphere to behave in a way that is extremely damaging," Mr. Watt said in a 2002 interview in Orientations magazine, a publication for Asian art collectors. "They should not be given a monopoly on the study of culture and antiquities."
He added: "I am not in favor of illegal digging, but it is not something that can be stopped. In the first place, every time a farmer tills his field or a worker lays the foundation for a building, there is a chance they might uncover another ancient burial ground. Secondly, the economic situation in China is such that the material gain from finding just one little minor antiquity is so great in relation to the earnings of the typical worker that the temptations are too great to stop."
Michael Zao contributed reporting from Beijing for this article.