Cultural policy Heritage News USA

US and China renew import deal

Controversial agreement aims to curb smuggling

Genuine (and fake) antiquities still find their way illegally from China to the US

A groundbreaking agreement between the Chinese and US governments on the import of cultural objects has been extended for another five years. It marks a continued shift in America’s policy, and coincides with a report suggesting that heritage objects worth millions of dollars are being smuggled into the US from China. But the deal has caused controversy among art professionals. Some claim that the original agreement only served to fuel Chinese business interests and dampen US trade. Others argue that looting has decreased and that international collaboration has improved.

The US has previously been loath to monitor imports. It was one of nine countries to sign the 1970 Unesco convention, which aimed to regulate the transfer of culturally significant objects, with “reservations”. In 2004, China requested a blanket ban on all improperly exported material made before 1911, but the US did not sign a memorandum.

The 2009 accord, which coincided with the 30th anniversary of the resumption of full diplomatic relations between the two countries, was much more limited. All Chinese archaeological material from the Palaeolithic period (beginning around 75,000BC) to the end of the Tang Dynasty (907AD), as well as monumental sculpture and wall art that is at least 250 years old, is subject to import restrictions in the US.

Nonetheless, it is likely that cultural heritage objects worth millions of dollars are still being smuggled into the US from China, according to a recent report, “The People’s Republic of China and the Foreign Art Trade”, by Alice Lovell Rossiter (The Art Newspaper, February, p3). It found huge disparities in import and export data between the two countries. For example, in 2012, the US imported antiques (objects more than 100 years old) from China worth $191m. This is $107m more than the total cited by Chinese officials, says Benjamin Mandel, a research economist at Citibank.

This lends weight to the view that international conventions and national legislation have both failed to stop the looting of archaeological sites and illegal trafficking, as argued by James Cuno, the chief executive of the Getty Trust, in his book Who Owns Antiquity? Museums and the Battle over Our Ancient Heritage.

The 2009 memorandum, however, is arguably the only legislation that has made an impact: a decrease in imported antiquities was reported by the US authorities that year (it reported the import of objects worth around $120m, compared with $250m in 2007).

Melissa Chiu, the director of the Asia Society in New York, says that the bulk of trade now takes place in mainland China—because, since the agreement, US buyers have been “much more measured and circumspect. Museums are concerned with provenance and private collectors are much more cautious about competing in an unregulated marketplace.”

This has created “an uneven playing field in which US museums, collectors and dealers are harmed and China’s elite-run, monopoly businesses thrive”, says the art lawyer Kate Fitz Gibbon. She says that China has not fulfilled undertakings that were sought by the Cultural Property Advisory Committee, a US federal body that recommends such agreements, in 2009. The committee asked China to halt the illegal trade in Hong Kong and Macao by barring the entry of looted archaeological materials; to license the sale and export of certain antiquities; and to ensure that Chinese museums refrained from acquiring looted or illicitly exported antiquities. Instead, Fitz Gibbon says, Chinese trade has actively increased. “[The agreement] does nothing to protect China’s archaeological sites—a ludicrous proposition, since China is… the major market for Chinese antiquities.”

The market is “dominated by Chinese buyers”, says the New York based Asian art dealer James Lally. “US buying accounts for less than 5% and declining, of the international trade.”

Others argue for the benefits of the 2009 accord. In a letter to the US Department of State, Rowan Flad, a professor of anthropology at Harvard University, vouches for its effectiveness. He writes that the agreement “has had a measurable effect”.

Cultural exchanges and long-term loans to US museums have increased since 2009, says Laetitia La Follette, a professor of art history at the University of Massachusetts and vice-president for professional responsibilities at the Archaeological Institute of America—the national organisation that pushed for an extension.

She is hopeful that “the agreement commits China to take certain concrete steps to improve their protection of cultural heritage: steps and efforts that are then assessed upon the occasion of the next request for renewal.”

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