Advocacy News

June 30, 2016

AIA Members Speak in Favor of Continued Protection of Artifacts from Bolivia and Greece

by Nathan T. Elkins, Baylor University

A Summary of Comments Presented at the Public Hearing of the Cultural Property Advisory Committee on May 24, 2016 at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C.

The Cultural Property Advisory Committee (CPAC) of the U.S. Department of State held a public hearing on May 24, 2016 for comments on the requests from Bolivia and Greece to renew their respective bilateral agreements with the U.S.  These agreements restrict the flow of undocumented and recently looted antiquities into the United States.  The U.S. government has a number of similar agreements, called Memoranda of Understanding (MoUs), with several other countries.  These MoUs are made possible by the Cultural Property Implementation Act (CPIA) of 1983 that accounts for the U.S. government’s ratification of the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. The U.S. legislation, the CPIA, set up the framework for MoUs whereby countries whose cultural heritage is in peril may ask the U.S. for a bilateral agreement.

The CPAC makes recommendations as to whether or not the U.S. should enter into an agreement with a foreign country and the provisions of that bilateral agreement.  It is a presidentially-appointed committee made up of professionals who represent the various interests of the public (P), museums (M), the trade (T), and archaeology, anthropology, ethnology, or related fields (A).  Current members are Patty Gerstenblith (P), who chairs the committee, Nina M. Archabal (M), Barbara Bluhm Kaul (P), Lothar von Falkenhausen (A), Rosemary A. Joyce (A), Jane A. Levine (T), Thomas Murray (T), Katharine L. Reid (M), Marta A. de la Torre (P), Nancy C. Wilkie (A), and James W. Willis (T). 

Members of the public speaking before the committee are asked to center their comments around any of the “four determinations” of the CPIA.  Those are “(1) that the cultural patrimony of the requesting nation is in jeopardy from the pillage of archaeological materials; (2) that the requesting nation has taken measures to protect its cultural patrimony; (3) that U.S. import restrictions, either alone or in concert with actions taken by other market nations, would be of substantial benefit in deterring the serious situation of pillage, and (4) import restrictions would promote the interchange of cultural property among nations for scientific, cultural, and educational purposes.” For some more information on the CPIA, see the AIA’s fact sheet


Two speakers spoke in favor of the renewal of the MoU with Bolivia: Donna Yates (University of Glasgow) and Sonia Alconini (University of Texas at San Antonio), who spoke on behalf of the Society for American Archaeology.  Both speakers imparted their knowledge of looting and trafficking in antiquities in Bolivia and recent efforts by the government to stem looting.  Yates focused her commentary on ecclesiastical artifacts and thefts of such items in Bolivia to fuel the international market.  While it is difficult to determine whether an ecclesiastical artifact is from modern Bolivia or Peru, inclusion of ecclesiastical objects in the renewal would essentially restrict all undocumented ecclesiastical artifacts from this region from entering the United States, which would be beneficial for the protection of such items.


After discussion of the potential renewal of the MoU with Bolivia, attention turned towards the renewal with Greece.  Two representatives of the antiquities trade insisted that the MoU should not be renewed, or should only be renewed with significant changes, such as the omission of ancient coins.  Sue McGovern Huffman spoke first, on behalf of the Association of Dealers and Collectors of Ancient and Ethnographic Art (ADCAEA).  She stated that ADCAEA supports a transparent and ethical trade in ancient and ethnographic objects, but insisted that the MoU with Greece has been ineffective and should not be renewed.  In particular, she argued that “common” artifacts with little commercial value should not be subject to restrictions on the designated lists as they have no cultural significance.  Peter Tompa, an attorney and paid lobbyist who represents two ancient coin trade groups, the International Association of Professional Numismatists (IAPN) and Professional Numismatists Guild (PNG), asserted that current restrictions inappropriately restrict ancient coins according to where they are made versus where they are found, as mandated by the CPIA.  When pressed about the matter by a member of the committee, he admitted this was only his interpretation of the CPIA as other attorneys, academics, and the federal courts have not agreed with Tompa’s understanding of the ‘found in’ vs. ‘made in’ argument.  He also suggested that more restrictions are not needed, but rather that Greece should require foreign archaeologists pay local labor a “living wage.”

The remaining speakers supported the renewal outright, or suggested renewal with some clarifications or additions.  Carmen Arnold-Biucchi (Harvard Art Museums) spoke next and asked that the MoU be renewed and focused her comments on the need to protect ancient coins.  She asked that the designated list include all coins found in Greece.  She pointed out the specific need for protection of Byzantine coins, which the current MoU does not list. She also expressed sympathy for schemes that would encourage the reporting of finds such as the Treasure Act in England.  Nathan Elkins (Baylor University) also supported the renewal of the MoU and the expansion of the list to include coins commonly found in Greece.  He agreed with a member of the committee who observed that if multiple MoUs with major source countries covered similar classes of ancient coins found in those countries, it would help to stem the trade in such objects that are recently looted.  He pointed out the need to protect ancient coins in view of recent reports of looting and smuggling of coins in Greece.  He responded to the idea that a commercial assessment of an objects as “common” did not equate with cultural significance; coins that would sell on eBay for $0.50 have provided vital information about the monumental synagogue and village at the archaeological site at which he presently works.

Peter Schertz (Virginia Museum of Fine Arts), who represented the Association of Art  Museum Directors (AAMD), argued that current museum loans from Greece (part of the current MoU) are not intellectually meaty and in his opinion did not necessarily conform to requirements of the current agreement.  It does not seem easy to get loans from Greece.  He would like to see more loans and asks the committee to clarify that issue in any renewal.

William Parkinson (Field Museum/University of Chicago) forcefully condemned the earlier assertion that objects deemed “common” from a commercial perspective be excluded from a renewal.  Common items found in context shed important information on our knowledge of the past and thus the commercial assessment is myopic and misguided.  He also disagreed with Peter Schertz that loans from Greece were difficult and predetermined.

 Bryan Burns (Wellesley College) spoke next, in full support of the MoU.  He spoke about the importance of digitized collections and security at sites, citing many specific examples where excavations in Greece have been proactive.  It is potentially difficult to put all finds from excavations online as this could help looters to target sites and there are also intellectual property issues.

John Papadopoulos (University of California at Los Angeles) spoke at length about looting in Greece and the value of an MoU.  He spoke about specific cases of looting and smuggling, including artifacts from Corinth that were smuggled to Miami and identified by means of a database.  He too addressed the issue of online databases and the benefits (like identifying the stolen objects from Corinth) and potential problems thereof. 

Kim Shelton (University of California at Berkeley) spoke about her firsthand experiences as an archaeologist who works at Nemea.  In particular she highlighted her excavation’s community outreach initiatives and how locals feel invested in the site and take ownership for protecting it.

Barbara Tsakirgis (Vanderbilt University) spoke last and focused on her expertise on archaeology in domestic contexts, again pointing to flaws in the trade’s valuation of “common” items as culturally insignificant.  “Common” artifacts in homes and other mundane contexts have much to tell us about the way ancient people lived and their daily lives, especially as ancient sources often focus on grand historical narratives.  They are thus culturally significant as they are virtually the only source material for much of our history.  Therefore, coins and other “minor” objects must be protected.

Those of us who spoke in favor of the MoU, many of whom are members of the AIA, and many who were first time speakers before CPAC, gathered briefly afterwards and felt that the comments in favor of the renewal were received well by the committee.

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