The New York Sun, March 31, 2006
Furor Over Stolen Art Moves East
By RUSSELL BERMAN, Staff Reporter of the Sun
The focus of a simmering debate over stolen art - centered for months in
the Mediterranean - is moving east this week to China, a country pushing
America for a wide-ranging ban on cultural imports.
Amid the wheeling and dealing of the city's annual Asia Week of art
fairs, sales, and exhibitions, leading scholars of Chinese culture will
gather at the Asia Society on Monday evening for a symposium focusing on
the controversy surrounding allegedly looted artifacts and its impact on
China's booming art market.
The forum comes as the State Department is considering a request by the
Chinese government to outlaw the import of Chinese artifacts dating from
prehistoric times to 1912. China first made the request in 2004 under
terms of a 1970 United Nations treaty, adopted by Congress in 1983, that
allows countries to ask for such bans as a way to stop the pillaging of
ancient archaeological sites.
The appeal has stirred a debate that echoes the ongoing dispute
involving countries such as Italy, Greece, and Egypt that are clamoring
for the return of antiquities from several American museums, including
the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
On one side are archaeologists who say America, as a key player in the
worldwide art market, must do all it can to help protect cultural
patrimony around the globe, starting with agreements to ban imports of
antiquities. Critics contend that such an accord would have little
effect on the brisk trade in artifacts of sometimes dubious provenance,
and would only stifle the legitimate antiquities trade in America. They
argue that China must first do its part to improve what they say is a
poor job of protecting its ancient sites.
"The Chinese have the worst record of protecting cultural property in
the world," a New York dealer of Chinese art, James Lally, said. Mr.
Lally, a panelist at next week's symposium, criticized the State
Department's implementation of the U.N. treaty through bilateral
agreements, saying it gave too much policing power to customs officials.
"The U.S. Customs office is soon going to be enforcing the customs laws
of every country in the world," he said.
A scholar of Chinese culture at Cornell University, Magnus Fiskesjo,
however, said all nations need to work together for the protection of
cultural property. He called China's request for an import ban laudable.
"I feel absolutely we should do our part from outside China to help
them," Mr. Fiskesjo said.
Cultural officials at the Chinese consulate in New York could not be
reached for comment yesterday. The Chinese government has stepped up its
efforts at cultural reform in recent years, including improving
protection at archaeological sites.
State Department deliberations regarding China's request have largely
been shrouded in secrecy. More than a year has passed since the
11-member Cultural Property Advisory Committee held a lone public
hearing. A State Department spokeswoman, Janelle Hironimus, said only
that the request remains under consideration.
Most observers agree that China's request is excessively broad. The 1983
American cultural property law does not allow a ban on objects less than
250 years old.
The State Department may also consider the appeal in the context of a
larger and more complicated diplomatic relationship with China, a
professor at the Cardozo School of Law, Justin Hughes, said. "This is a
very small piece of that entire puzzle," Mr. Hughes, who is moderating
Monday's panel, said.
with kind regards,
Matthias Arnold (Art-Eastasia list)
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