Advocacy News

October 26, 2010

Eleven AIA Members Testify at Cultural Property Advisory Committee Meeting on October 12, 2010

by L. La Follette, Associate Professor of Art History at University of Massachusetts Amherst and member of AIA's Cultural Heritage Policy Committee

Read an abbreviated version of this account in the AIA blog.

On October 12, 2010, the Cultural Property Advisory Committee of the State Department held a public hearing on Greece’s recent request for a bilateral agreement intended to curb the import of undocumented antiquities from the Hellenic Republic into the United States.

The U.S. has entered into a number of such agreements (termed Memoranda of Understanding, or MoU for short) since implementing legislation in 1983 reflecting the U.S.’s 1972 ratification of the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. The American supporting legislation envisioned the signing of such MoUs to help countries whose cultural heritage is endangered. In the case of Greece and Italy, the two countries I am most familiar with, the primary danger comes from looting, which continues to supply the international market, despite strenuous action on the part of Italian and Greek law enforcement.

This was my second visit to the State Department. I testified in May in support of the renewal of the MoU with Italy, but am still a newcomer to these hearings. Fortunately, the AIA had put together an informal delegation of some ten people with different expertise, most more experienced than I. In order to speak, you have to first reserve a spot with the State Department and then send in a written statement. In May the hearing was held in a small conference room in the annex of the State Department, but this time we were to meet in the “real” State Department, the one you see on TV with its flags and marble, which was exciting.

Understandably, security was tight and it took a while for everyone to get seated. The hall was cavernous: Chair of the Committee, Katherine L. Reid, quipped in her welcome it felt like the UN. At least there was no danger of tripping over people’s feet to get to the microphone, as had been the case in the smaller conference room in May. Slightly disappointing was the fact that only six of the eleven CPAC Committee members were present: Reid, the chair, a former director of the Cleveland Art Museum; Joan Breton Connelly and Nancy Wilkie, both archaeologists and AIA members, two of the three members representing the public (Winton Holladay and Robert O’Brien) and the representative for the antiquities dealers (Robert Korver).

On the other hand, there were 23 speakers, including two from the sizeable Greek delegation in attendance. (I was thrilled to see Vasilis Lambrinoudakis among these, whose work on the Getty kouros I assign my students.) It was clear the session would go over the two hours allotted.

After the welcome from Chairperson Reid, in which she urged those in attendance to see some of the fruits of the Committee’s labors in the form of two exhibitions currently in Washington  (Gods of Angkor: Bronzes from the National Museum of Cambodia at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and Cyprus: Crossroads of Civilizations at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History), came eloquent remarks on the importance of Greek heritage to the world, first from Ioannis Vrailas, Deputy Chief of Mission for the Greek Embassy in Washington and then from Maria Vlazaki, Head of the General Directorate of Antiquities and Cultural Heritage in the Hellenic Ministry of Tourism and Culture. They also detailed the actions that Greek authorities have taken to curb looting, as the MoU requires. One statistic that was repeated several times over the morning was that coins made up over 60 percent of the illegal material confiscated by Greek authorities. A handful of coin collectors and dealers came to the hearing to oppose the inclusion of coins as one of the protected categories covered by the MoU. I recognized several of these gentlemen from the May hearings on the MoU with Italy. As an art historian, I wanted to learn more about the position of the museum folks in attendance, particularly those associated with the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), as I had been told they would oppose this MoU as well.

The order of speakers is determined by the Committee and is not announced in advance. This time those in support of the MoU were called first, starting in reverse alphabetical order with Prof. James Wright, an archaeologist at Bryn Mawr with extensive excavation experience in the Peloponnese. Wright, who represented the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, came equipped with handouts documenting looted tombs on his site near Nemea, and described the damage looters (some of them members of well-known local gangs) wreak on sites. His testimony elicited several questions from the Committee, including one on the role coins play and another on Greek law enforcement efforts. Wright stressed the importance of coin evidence in providing dates for a stratigraphic excavation; he lauded improved Greek efforts at security and surveillance, but he indicated the problem was a huge one, made so in part by the concatenation of a lack of border controls within the EU, the participation of organized crime, and the application of new technologies to looting, including metal detectors.

I spoke fourth. I had been warned not to read the text of my letter, already included in the Committee’s sizeable dossier, but to focus on three bullet points, after the customary thank you for the opportunity to speak. Having just taught a course on Greek art and cultural ownership issues, I focused on the cutting edge technology looters now have access to which allows them to target tombs, rip out the saleable items (coins, pottery), and destroy the rest along with any chance of understanding the way the works of art functioned in past society. Even the marketable material is often deliberately damaged, as with Greek vases, so that the sherds can be sold individually to museums for more money than the complete pot would bring. I pointed out the positive effects the MoU with Italy had brought, with the forging of more careful guidelines for the acquisition of antiquities and longer-term loans to American institutions. I pushed for greater consideration of such loans, which I see as a less costly way to renew museum collections than new purchases.

Next up in the group of educators was Jessica Nitschke (Georgetown) who stressed the importance of context in building a narrative for undergraduates about an object. Elise Friedland (George Washington) then brought anecdotes from her museological experience as well as her classroom teaching, focusing on the problems posed when objects lacking such contexts enter the museum world, both in terms of the danger of fakes, and the more impoverished story such unprovenanced material tells. Senta German (Montclair State) followed with a beautifully crafted statement citing in particular the Founding Fathers’ love of classical culture as an additional reason to support the MoU.

Richard Leventhal, Director of the University of Pennsylvania Museum and Penn’s Cultural Heritage Center, addressed the problems of a licit trade in antiquities, something museums have pushed for, but he sees as an unlikely development, in part because there is no such thing as a duplicate ancient object. He also alluded to a recent experience of a graduate student in Rutger’s Program in Cultural Heritage and Preservation Studies who last summer (2010) observed fresh evidence of looting at the site of Pella in Macedonia.  Chairperson Reid then asked him about the impact Penn’s early adoption of the 1970 date of the UNESCO convention had had on the University Museum’s ability to acquire new objects. He replied that new acquisitions were indeed less common as a result, that those that were acquired mostly came in the form of existing collections, and were subject to a rigorous review process.

Sebastian Heath, AIA’s Vice President for Professional Responsibilities, offered a lively rebuttal to the coin collectors’ thesis that certain coins should excluded from protection under the MoU. He stressed the scientific information a coin offers in a stratigraphic context; such information is intricately connected to the circumstances of the find and does not depend solely on whether the coin is rare or common. His remarks elicited several questions from the Committee, on the degree to which the smaller denomination bronze coins circulated (Connelly) and whether restrictions should be applied to a Roman coin found in Greece (Korver). Heath patiently replied in the affirmative (since any antiquity found on Greek soil is considered part of Greek cultural heritage regardless of its original place of manufacture.)

Arthur Houghton III, a former curator at the Getty, now at the Policy Research Institute, asked to speak next, out of order, as he was catching a plane to Istanbul later that day. While stating he was in favor of the MoU with Greece, he asked for greater specifics on the objects to be included than were provided in the public, unclassified statement provided on the CPAC website.

Brian Rose, President of the AIA, spoke next, on the AIA’s long relationship with Greece, going back to the founding of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens in 1881. He called attention to the extensive series of archaeological excavations sponsored by the School under permits issued by the Greek government and the long history of collaboration between American scholars of antiquity and their Greek counterparts. He sees the MoU as part of that ongoing collaboration and an important step towards preserving Greek cultural heritage, which includes coins.

Rose, who is also deputy director of the Penn Museum, then got several questions from the Committee about the Penn Museum’s past collecting practices (before the adoption of the UNESCO convention of 1970) and whether he considered sending any of that material back. He replied that most of it came from digs the Museum participated in and was given under partage agreements. He mentioned the Museum’s digitization projects, intended to reunite virtually objects in its collections with those in the source countries; he added that so far no such request for repatriation has been made, but if one were, it would be considered on a case by case basis.

Susan Alcock, an archaeologist at Brown, entertained the Committee with flair with her remarks that brought together Madeleine Albright, cultural diplomacy, and the importance of systematic pedestrian surveys (that is, walking large swathes of territory examining surface finds for traces of habitation.) She described the deep pits she has encountered walking the Greek countryside, clearly the product of metal detectors used in the search for coins, and expressed the hope that the MoU with Greece would help foster the development of eco-tourism in Greece.

The attorneys Thomas Kline (George Washington) and Patty Gerstenblith (DePaul) rounded out the group in support of the MoU, with the former stressing the role such MoUs play in encouraging best practices on the part of museums, collectors, and dealers, while Gerstenblith,  Chairperson of AIA’s Cultural Heritage Policy Committee, addressed some of the more technical aspects of the MoU, including the concerted international response requirement.

The Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), which opposes the MoU with Greece as it did the renewal of the MoU with Italy at the hearing last May, sent Larry Feinberg (Santa Barbara Museum of Art) and Stephen (Josh) Knerly (AAMD Counsel) to address the Committee. Feinberg reiterated the request (also made by the AAMD representative last May) for longer-term loans than currently envisioned in the MoU, preferably 10 year loans so as to give museums time to create educational materials for the objects. (Greece already provides loans up to 5 years; Italy had extended its loans of cultural material from six months to 4 years as part of its MoU.) I found this argument odd since I know from many of my former students who now work in the museum education departments, that it is common practice to develop educational materials for loan shows that last only months, not years. Chair Reid reminded the AAMD representatives that the Committee has requested supporting documentation last May for the AAMD’s statement that several of its member museums had requested long term loans from Italy and had been denied them. That documentation had still not been provided as of October.

The six gentlemen representing coin collectors and dealers wrapped up the hearing.

Speaking on behalf of the American Numismatic Association (Scott Rottinghaus), the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild (Wayne Sayles), and the International Association of Professional Numismatists and the Professional Numismatists Guild (Peter Tompa) they all opposed the MoU, stressing the desirability of an open market for ancient coins and their own use of coins as educational tools, for example, to research ancient Greek sporting events, or via the ANA Museum in Colorado Springs, created through donations from private collectors.

Rick Witschonke, who also attended the May hearing, suggested that instead of the MoU, Greece adopt the Treasure and Portable Antiquities provisions that have been successful in Britain and Wales. (These encourage the finders of archaeological material to report such finds to the government, which then decides whether it is ‘treasure’ and if so pays the finder the market value of the object, or a ‘portable antiquity’ the finder is allowed to keep.) He mentioned that provisions for rewards and the return of insignificant items to finders already exist in Greek law, though they have not been applied.

Peter Tompa, a paid lobbyist, provided some drama, protesting the Committee’s refusal, based on advice from legal counsel, to allow him to pass ancient coins around the conference table as he has done in the past. Michael McCullough, an attorney for dealers and collectors, was the last to speak. Acknowledging that he stood between 50 people and lunch, he kept his remarks brief, questioning the degree to which the art market contributes to looting in Greece and raising some problems he sees with the implementation of MoU by U.S. Customs.

The public portion of the hearing thus ended at 1:15 (the committee then met in private with the Greek delegation.) Those of us with tickets on the 2:05 Amtrak northbound train had just enough time to make it to Union Station.

support Us

The AIA is North America's largest and oldest nonprofit organization dedicated to archaeology. The Institute advances awareness, education, fieldwork, preservation, publication, and research of archaeological sites and cultural heritage throughout the world. Your contribution makes a difference.