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The Cultural Property Advisory Committee (CPAC) met in February to consider a request from the Government of the People’s Republic of China to ban the importation of Chinese works of art into America. Such a ban would have dire consequences for the international trade in Chinese works of art.

The Chinese government, fearful that the continuing trade is putting its cultural heritage in jeopardy from pillage, quietly requested the ban at the end of May 2004 under Article 9 of the 1970 UNESCO Convention. They want US import restrictions on material more than 95 years old.

Those opposing the ban argue, among other points, that China has failed to protect its own heritage, particularly in regards to the ongoing and unrestricted export of Chinese cultural property from Chinese jurisdiction in Hong Kong.

The public hearing on Thursday, February 17 was an important opportunity for the 11 members of CPAC to take soundings from all sides. But the committee gave no indication of how members may rule on the subject – and there is no deadline for them to do so.

However, the records apparently show that in the 20 plus years since it was formed, CPAC has ruled in favour of granting all or part of every request for import restrictions submitted to the US government under the UNESCO treaty for the protection of cultural property.

Those giving evidence at the February hearing included trade lawyer James Fitzpatrick of Washington law firm Arnold and Porter. He criticised the Chinese failure to protect their own heritage, the unfair singling out of the US for a ban, and the potentially negative impact upon American cultural institutions should a ban be implemented.

Many of the same themes were picked up by the other 14 ‘objectors’ who included: New York dealers James J. Lally (J.J. Lally & Co.), Nancy Murphy (WaterMoon Gallery) and Carlton Rochelle (Carlton Rochelle, Inc) plus Michael McCullough and Joe-Hynn Yang of Sotheby’s, New York.

Four American museum directors also gave carefully considered arguments against the Chinese request, supporting instead methods of protection for cultural patrimony inside China that would not cut off access for US collectors and curators.

The seven speakers supporting the ban were representatives of Saving Antiquities for Everyone (SAFE), New York and The Field Museum, Chicago. All were of the opinion that – regardless of China’s failure to get its own house in order – archaeological investigation and research must be given priority over all other possible approaches to cultural property.

Heritage priority

Summarising the meeting, New York dealer Jim Lally believed those against the ban had argued effectively, but he was uncertain of how CPAC would react.

From the questions and comments of some committee members, he was of the opinion that the protection of archaeological sites was the most important (and in some cases perhaps the only) issue of concern for them.

He thought that for these committee members, the shortcomings of Chinese policy and the potential damage to US trade and cultural exchange would not be enough to stop them from approving a ban.