The Cultural Property Advisory Committee will meet next week to consider the request from the People's Republic of China to seek restrictions on Chinese works of art imported to America.
Such restrictions, were they to be accepted by the US government, would have dire consequences for the international trade in Chinese works of art.
Concerned that its cultural heritage is in jeopardy from pillage, the Government of the People’s Republic of China made the request quietly at the end of May 2004 under Article 9 of the 1970 UNESCO Convention.
The Chinese seek US import restrictions on Chinese archaeological material from the Paleolithic era to the Qing Dynasty i.e. up to 1920.
The request includes, but is not limited to, “certain categories of metal implements, weapons, vessels, sculpture, and jewellery, pottery and porcelain vessels, architectural elements, stone implements, weapons, painting and calligraphy, textiles, lacquer; bone, ivory, horn, wood and bamboo objects.”
Such a move – that the Chinese may seek to make a stumbling block in wider trade agreements – was first mooted in the trade three years ago following the controversial prosecution of New York antiquities dealer Frederick Schultz.
The Cultural Property Advisory Committee (CPAC), appointed by the US State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, will meet in Washington, DC on Thursday and Friday, February 17-18 to discuss the issue. The committee is composed of archaeologists, members of the museum community, and representatives of the public interest, but has minimal trade presence.
On Thursday, February 17 the committee will hold an open session, from 1.00pm to 3.30pm, to allow the input of those who wish to make written or oral statements. However, given that persons wishing to attend this open session were asked to notify the Cultural Heritage Center of the Department of State by Friday, February 4 that deadline has now passed. A number of members of the British trade have submitted material for consideration, while New York dealer Jim Lally is organising the opposition to what the trade consider to be draconian and ill-thought-out measures.
According to the Chinese government, the pillage of archaeological sites in the People’s Republic and the illicit transfer of cultural artefacts into the international art market have escalated in recent years. The document prepared in advance of the request lists a number of transgressions including, in 1997, the seizure by Tianjin Customs of a container of over 4000 archaeological artefacts and, in June of last year, a shipment traced to Beijing and destined for the United States containing over 2200 pieces of illicit merchandise.
However, the proposals go far further than the protection of the country’s unparalleled ancient archaeological wealth. Trade opposition will seek to point out to the CPAC that a blanket ban on material up to 1920 would effectively extinguish America’s legitimate Oriental art market and create a paradox whereby the huge quantities of material made in China for export to the West would become tainted.
Moreover, while no Western dealers directly endorse the trade in recently and illegally exported Chinese antiquities, most are aware of the loopholes that exist on the ground in the People’s Republic where (with its different laws) Hong Kong has become the trading post for ‘problem’ objects. In short, what is illegal to trade in Mainland China can be exported legitimately once in Hong Kong. Accordingly, the trade believe that the legislation to tackle looting and smuggling should come not from importing countries such as the United States but from the Chinese government itself.
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