U.S.-China Agreement Signed
March 20, 2009

A new Memorandum of Understanding was inked by the United States and the People’s Republic of China on January 14, 2009. The five-year agreement outlines a number of steps designed to stem the flow of illicitly excavated or exported artifacts from China to the U.S. The action was taken under the Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act, a U.S. law that implements the 1970 UNESCO Convention (click here for legal background).

The agreement was supported by the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA), and Jane Waldbaum, then AIA president, wrote in a February 3, 2005, letter to the Cultural Property Advisory Committee that, “Widespread and unchecked pillaging of sites can mean the destruction of whole sites in search of the few ‘precious’ and most marketable artifacts. Such destruction not only obliterates the context of the artifacts that do enter the market, but also destroys other artifacts considered less valuable on the market, but in reality no less important in terms of the information they have to convey.” (See also Waldbaum’s editorial, “Helping Hand for China,” from the May/June 2005 issue of Archaeology.)

The trade agreement restricts the importation to the U.S. of cultural and archaeological materials from the Paleolithic through the Tang Dynasty (75,000 B.C.–A.D. 907), as well as monumental sculpture and wall art at least 250 years old. (A detailed list was published by the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of the Treasury in the Federal Register on January 16, 2009.) Such archaeological material originating in China can only come into the U.S if accompanied by a valid export permit or other appropriate documentation from the Chinese government.

In addition to the import restrictions, the MOU requires that both countries take a number of steps. China, for example, pledges to expand efforts to educate its citizens about the importance of safeguarding its rich cultural heritage, to increase funding and other resources for protecting cultural heritage, and to block looted artifacts from entering the Hong Kong and Macao Special Administrative Regions, where much of the material currently comes onto the art market. The U.S. pledges technical assistance to China in protecting its cultural heritage. The agreement also outlines steps to foster loans to museums in the U.S., scholarly collaboration among archaeologists from both countries, and exchange of faculty and students. Both countries commit to educating their customs officers about cultural heritage and Chinese archaeological material. Both agree to share information that helps enforce applicable laws and regulations to reduce illicit trafficking in cultural property.

Nicole Albertson at AIA’s Archaeology office talked with Sebastian Heath, AIA’s vice president of professional responsibilities, and Robert Murowchick, director of the International Center for East Asian Archaeology and Cultural History at Boston University and a trustee of the AIA, about the China MOU.

Will this new MOU stop the illicit trade in China?

Sebastian Heath: The MOU will lead to a decrease in market demand for looted Chinese goods. An agreement between China and a single country doesn't solve the whole problem, but the United States has now taken an important stand against the ongoing looting of Chinese sites. As the terms of the MOU begin to be enforced by U.S. agents, this will deter the import of undocumented Chinese artifacts and that will help lessen the incentive to find more objects by looting more sites. Every step that helps preserve the archaeological record is an important victory for the AIA and its members.

Robert Murowchick: I think it is obvious that this one legislative step by itself will not bring an end to looting and the illegal trade in Chinese antiquities. However, we must start somewhere to do what we can to decrease the destruction that is caused by this trade. It is a trade driven by demand and by profits, and the U.S. has long represented one of the major markets for this material. I certainly hope that the example set by U.S. efforts will be followed by many other countries, both large and small, and that it will increase public discussion about the ethics and consequences of the antiquities trade.

While the new MOU agreement between the U.S. and China limits the international trade, there is still a large demand for black-market artifacts that are traded internally within China. What is the scope of the internal trade market?

RM: There is no way to know the true scope of the internal trade in antiquities in China. As the Chinese economy has soared over the past decade or so, more and more Chinese collectors are buying Chinese antiquities, most of which in the past would have ended up in the international market. The site destruction caused by looters in search of sellable objects is equally reprehensible, whether it is caused by domestic demand or by international demand. The solutions are not easy, and no doubt will involve a combination of enforcing existing regulations, refining new legislation, cracking down on corruption both inside and outside of China, and educating people – including local farmers, looters, collectors and government officials in charge of protecting cultural heritage – about the severity and permanence of the destruction.

How effective are the Chinese government's efforts to stop looting and trading within its borders?

RM: Obviously they have not been as effective as they could be. The problems are well known: the huge size of China, and the richness of its ancient heritage; China's red-hot economic development during the past 15 years that has frequently pitted modernization and growth of infrastructure against heritage protection; and the huge profits produced by the antiquities trade that have led to corruption along the entire chain of participants, from farmers to looters to local police to provincial authorities to national Customs and other law enforcement officials. I think that the ongoing restructuring of the State Administration for Cultural Heritage (SACH), which oversees archaeology, site protection, museums, heritage tourism and related areas, will result in better management of these fields and in more effective programs in the future. I was delighted to see that the MOU with China included calls for China to increase funding for site protection, increased educational efforts within China, and better enforcement of existing regulations.

What is the scale of loss for China?

RM: There is no way to obtain a truly accurate figure, because many (perhaps most) of the looted sites are located in relatively remote regions of China, and their destruction has not even been discovered yet, even long after the looted objects themselves have headed to market. Some archaeologists have estimated that there are in the neighborhood of 400,000 archaeological sites in China, and that one-third of them have already been looted, so this suggests some idea of the magnitude of the problem.

Chinese fakes have flooded the marketplace, at times constituting the majority of the objects. How are the fakes, along with looting, degrading the archaeological record?

RM: Most archaeologists and historians rely on properly excavated material for their studies, knowing that fakes are widespread. So, the flood of fake antiquities does not bother me much. Their creation is a huge cottage industry in China, and any quick search of EBay and other online sites will yield vast numbers of "Neolithic" jades and ceramics, usually with cultural names attached that might be recognized by collectors, such as "Hongshan" and "Longshan", or bronze ritual vessels or weapons attributed to the Shang and other cultures. Many of these fakes are modeled after well-known excavated and published pieces, while others are creative combinations of motifs from different cultures and time periods.

With this new agreement, are coins now treated differently than before?

SH: Any coins that were deposited as the result of past human activity are archaeological artifacts, that has always been the case. By properly recording their findspots and analyzing the context from which coins have come, archaeologists and numismatists can gain remarkable insights into the ancient world. Coins help us understand the economies of past cultures and their iconography helps us investigate the political propaganda of ancient cities and empires. When we know where coins come from, they are tangible evidence of the history of the people in that area.

How will this MOU make a difference?

RM: The MOU publicizes a number of areas where both the US and China will strive to improve their efforts. The import restrictions give the US a new tool to try to stem the flow of looted Chinese antiquities into the US, as well as to publicize this problem to the American public. I hope that by taking the lead, the US effort will be adopted by other "consuming" countries, both in the West and in Asia. The MOU commits China to improve efforts at site protection, domestic regulation enforcement, public education to raise awareness about cultural heritage and the huge loss caused by looting. Importantly, it also commits China to seek ways to make it easier for US museums to arrange for exhibition loans of properly excavated archaeological materials, which I think will certainly enhance the true educational mission of American museums.

What was the Archaeological Institute of America's participation in supporting China's request?

SH: A Memorandum of Understanding with a country such as China goes through many stages, with the most public phase being consideration by the Cultural Property Advisory Committee. The China MOU was considered in 2005 and then President Jane Waldbaum submitted a letter to CPAC on behalf of the AIA. Public participation in CPAC hearings is extremely important and we ought to see the success of our efforts in this case as an incentive to be just as active in the future. Since 2005, the AIA continued to express its support for the MOU and while these efforts didn't have any formal role in the decision making process, it is always important that the AIA use its websites and magazines to show support for the protection of archaeological resource around the globe.

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