Deal to Curb Looting in China Worries Museums

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Shortly before President George W. Bush left office, his administration signed an agreement with China that imposed import restrictions on a sweeping range of Chinese art and antiquities in an effort to quash the growing illicit trade in looted artifacts, a volatile issue that has polarized the international art, museum and archaeological worlds and led to several high-profile restitution cases.

The agreement, signed on Jan. 14, covers all of China’s cultural heritage from the Paleolithic period, beginning 75,000 B.C., through the Tang period, ending A.D. 907, in addition to monumental sculpture and wall art that is at least 250 years old. Materials subject to import restrictions include art, furniture, textiles, ceramics, weapons, tools, ornaments, jewelry, coins and musical instruments.

The accord was widely praised in the archaeological community in the United States and elsewhere as an important measure to deter looting of ancient sites and the illicit trade in stolen artifacts. But among Chinese art dealers and museum professionals in the United States there is a widespread belief not only that the agreement is unlikely to achieve its stated goal of stopping looting in China, but also that it will harm legitimate collecting and study of this material.

James J. Lally, a New York dealer in Asian art, also suggested that the agreement would be detrimental to collecting by American museums, and said that because the content of the new regulations and their practical application were not well explained or understood, dealers at home and abroad had become fearful of the “unpredictable power” of individual United States Customs agents to seize objects.

Fine Chinese art held by Japanese or European dealers will not be shown to U.S. museums because the dealers will not wish to risk the chance of problems at Customs,” Mr. Lally said. “A positive cultural activity will be turned into a source of problems.”

But not all collecting of Chinese artifacts by American museums will be affected by the accord, which mostly excludes the last 1,000 years of Chinese history. Acquisitions for the Chinese art collection of the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass., for instance, are primarily post-Tang Dynasty, meaning after A.D. 907, so the agreement has little direct impact.

The agreement comes with mutual obligations. In return for the United States’ restricting its imports, China has agreed to take greater measures to crack down on looting and the illicit market for these items within China, believed to be huge, as well as to facilitate greater cooperation with American museums, including more exhibitions, cultural exchanges and long-term loans of archaeological material.

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