Advocacy News

May 6, 2010

CPAC Hearing, Washington, D.C.: A Personal Account

by Elizabeth Bartman

AIA First Vice-President, Elizabeth Bartman’s personal account of the meeting

The State Department’s Cultural Property Advisory Committee (CPAC, not to be confused with the better-known CPAC or Conservative Political Action Committee) met on May 6, 2010, to consider renewing the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed by the U.S. and Italy in 2001 and extended in 2006. The committee had already held an interim review of the MoU in November, 2009 (for a first-person account by Sebastian Heath, VP for Professional Responsibilities, and more details of the contents of the Memorandum click here); thus, many of the speakers and their positions were already familiar. I was a newbie and approached the entire event with both excitement and trepidation; the following is a report of my experience:

Individuals who want to speak at a CPAC hearing must make a formal request, which I did promptly when the announcement of the hearing was made in April so that I would be assured of a space (the room in which the committee meets is rather small and just two hours were scheduled for the morning hearing). In order to speak, one must send a letter to the Committee (the text of my letter follows), but it is advisable during the five minutes allotted to speak not simply to read from the letter. I formed part of an informal delegation from the AIA that supported renewal of the MoU; we knew that opposition would come from the museum world and, particularly, from coin collectors and dealers, as one of the primary issues that the Committee was debating is whether to give protection to coins—that is, to include ancient coins as one of the classes of artifacts whose import into the United States is restricted.

After passing through a metal detector, we were ushered upstairs to a conference room furnished with a large table around which sat the 11-member committee. Each had a binder several inches thick, easily holding 500 pages—presumably research, legal opinions, and correspondence, along with our previously sent letters. Chairs for speakers and a number of observers were arranged around the perimeter of the room. In their turn the speakers were called to sit at the head of the table, to address the group and answer questions.

Up first was Stefano de Caro, General Director for Antiquities within the Italian Ministry of Culture and a proponent of extending the MoU. As the MoU requires Italy to take action against the looting that brings antiquities to the market, he spoke about the Italian efforts in this respect: among them is improved cartography and aerial surveillance—a favorite tool of the Italian tax authorities as well—to locate clandestine digging. The Italian authorities have had some success in halting looting: some 50,000 artifacts and 30,000 coins were seized last year. Alex Nyerges, Director of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and a Trustee of the American Association of Museum Directors (AAMD), followed de Caro; it is fair to say that his agenda is to extend the period of long-term loans of Italian objects to American museums—one of the terms of the MoU—from four to ten years. He also claimed that very few American museums have benefited from the Italian pledge to make more loans of top-quality objects. A slew of coin aficionados then spoke, some with more emotion than reason. Certainly the description by Douglas Mudd, curator at the American Numismatic Association, of hoards of ancient coins with dirt still clinging to them was frightening—not only because of the obvious implications of recent looting but also the clear flaunting of U.S. Customs and Department of Agriculture bans on the import of soil and plant material.

For their part, the archaeologists who spoke in favor of renewal emphasized the importance of finding works in their original context in order to understand them. Sue Alcock of the Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology at Brown painted an eloquent image of the inestimable historical value of finds without intrinsic value: “the big picture depends on ordinary things.” Sebastian Heath, a numismatist connected with the American Numismatic Society, discussed the value of coins as “bearers of meaning.” Laetitia LaFollette of the University of Massachusetts Amherst noted that the MoU has had the unintended but positive effect of causing museums to investigate the provenance of any objects being considered for acquisition. She also offered a forceful rebuttal to Nyerges by pointing out that Italy has indeed loaned many works to American museums, but they are as likely to be natural history or science museums as the art museums his organization represents. Italian-born Clemente Marconi of the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, has surveyed colleagues in the archaeological service throughout Italy to conclude that illicit digging has slowed since the enactment of the MoU and that archaeological sites throughout Italy are being better monitored. Finally, Brian Rose, Professor at the University of Pennsylvania and AIA President, and I both spoke about the wealth of exhibitions and loans sent from Italy in the last few years that have been (and will be) seen by hundreds of thousands of American viewers in such diverse locales as Seattle, Washington D.C., Los Angeles, and Indianapolis.

The last speaker of the day was Patty Gerstenblith, an attorney specializing in cultural property issues and a former member of the Committee. She convincingly argued for renewal of the MoU as it offers protections to objects that are not otherwise covered by existing legislation. Noting that the law was not retroactive, she pointed out that the U.S./Italy trade in antiquities would not cease entirely and that many objects, with proper documentation, would still be allowed entry to the U.S.

CPAC is composed of a mix of archaeologists, collectors, and museum personnel—no doubt they will aim for compromise as they weigh the views of the opposing sides. While I doubt that any of the speakers was swayed by the arguments of the opposition, it is my hope that the Committee will see the wisdom of the AIA-supported platform and vote to recommend renewal of the MoU with Italy.

Elizabeth Bartman is First Vice President of the AIA and an archaeologist whose primary field is Roman art.

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