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On January 19, in one of the final acts of the Clinton presidency, representatives of Italy and the USA signed a memorandum of understanding in response to a request from the Italians under article 9 of the 1970 UNESCO Convention.

The agreement covers material “...dating from approximately the 9th century BC to the 4th century AD, including categories of stone, metal, ceramic and glass artefacts and wall paintings”. The immediate effect was to add a “designated list” of items subject to import restrictions to the Federal Register.

The list details a wide range of proscribed material – stone sculpture, metal sculpture, metal vessels, metal ornaments, weapons/armour, inscribed/ decorated sheet metal, ceramic sculpture and vessels, glass, architectural elements and sculpture, and wall paintings – and includes items which are commonly found in Italy but were manufactured elsewhere.

The regulation states: “Importation of articles on this list is restricted unless the articles are accompanied by an appropriate export certificate issued by the Government of the Republic of Italy or documentation demonstrating that the articles left the country of origin prior to the effective date of the import restriction.”

The ban applies only to items illegally exported from Italy after the date of publication of the list (January 23) and should not affect objects which have been in collections outside Italy, but there is a new onus on importers to prove to US Customs that objects have not been illegally exported.

“We are not sure yet what the US Customs will require as proof,” commented James Ede, chairman of the Antiquities Dealers Association. “We need clarification of what information we need to prove things came out of Italy before the date of the agreement. Paradoxically this can be difficult for items from the most distinguished old collections which were formed before any documentation was required.”

In theory a European Union export licence should satisfy US customs since these are only granted for items which were legally on the market before January 1, 1993. However, the ADA have not been able to get the US authorities to confirm this and James Ede has referred the matter to the DTI.

Though he fears an administrative nightmare, Mr Ede made it clear that his association was all for any measures which help the overall image of the trade. The ADA recently played a full part in the government panel which advised on the UK approach to controlling the illicit trade in antiquities.

He said that it was important to dispel the impression that the legitimate antiquities trade needs newly excavated artefacts to survive. Material recirculating from established collections will more than suffice to support a flourishing market, he explained. In that respect the antiquities market is no different from other markets such as Old Masters or fine furniture.