China and US drafting anti-smuggling agreement

A full import ban may not be intended by the Chinese, merely a bilateral agreement to implement the 1970 Unesco Convention


The word in Beijing is that next year China’s State Bureau of cultural Relics will sign a bilateral agreement with the US with the aim of reducing the smuggling of cultural relics and smoothing the way for the return of items seized in the US. The Art Newspaper has spoken with parties involved, who say, however, that the wording of the agreement is far from finalised.

The US is, to date, the only major art importing country to have implemented the 1970 Unesco Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, and it has codified it into US law as the Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act of 1983. This says that the agreements have to be reached bilaterally on a nation by nation basis, and that any requesting nation must have “taken measures consistent with the Convention to protect its cultural patrimony”.

China requested such a bilateral agreement in 1998, but progress has been slow. Several drafts submitted by the Chinese side to the US Embassy have been rejected for lack of conformity with international treaty standards.

Now, as a result of recent high profile overseas cases, including one civil suit to recover an antiquity from the US, the Beijing leadership, US Customs, and US Embassy officials alike are increasing pressure on the Bureau to conclude the treaty as soon as possible. While infighting persists within the Bureau over the best way to handle this and many other issues, the US Embassy, in an effort to push the agreement forward, has offered to assist by recommending legal experts to assist the Bureau.

In all other cases where the US has entered into such an agreement (with El Salvador, Guatemala, Canada, Mali, Cyprus and Cambodia), its essence has been the restriction of the import into the US of archaeological or ethnological material from those countries.

It seems, however, that the Chinese are aiming for an agreement that will simply mirror the language of the 1970 Unesco Convention, to which both the US and China have already acceded.

This would include obligations on the US to prevent museums and similar institutions from acquiring illegally exported cultural property from China; a prohibition of the import into the US of Chinese cultural property stolen from a museum, public monument, or institution; and the mandatory return of such items once found in the US.

The signing of such an agreement would be used officially as a vehicle for China to take a more visible role on the world stage in international cultural property matters.

To date, work on the agreement has been undertaken solely by the Foreign Affairs Department of the Cultural Relics Bureau. This is the same Department which operates as the Bureau’s in-house public relations team by maintaining close ties with Christie’s, Sotheby’s, antique dealers, collectors, and foreign museums.

In the view of some Bureau officials both inside and outside this Department, the question of illicit trafficking in antiquities should be kept out of their day-to-day activities, and would be more effectively handled by China’s local police, Customs and Public Security Bureaus.

In any event, an agreement may be finalised amidst great fanfares before its long-term implications are fully understood by those who are directly involved at present. Chinese cultural relics officials will have a far greater obligation to implement, and conform to, international standards of cultural relics protection than in the past.

Given the greater degree of accountability required from both sides by the agreement, the implementation of illicit trafficking curbs is likely to be faster and better coordinated than ever before, and a growing number of claims will have to be accepted and resolved on the Chinese side. Chinese cultural relics authorities will not be able to sit back and simply wait for returned items to be delivered from the US.

The Cultural Relics Bureau may find itself getting deeper and deeper into the business of fighting the internal traffic in cultural relics, whether or not its members want to be involved.