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Debating Looting | The Nation

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Debating Looting

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New York, NY

Zainab Bahrani's May 14 article "Looting and Conquest" seriously misrepresents the American Council for Cultural Policy (ACCP), its position regarding Iraq's cultural heritage and my statements regarding the same. In particular, your statement that I am "appealing for the cultural theft to continue by other means" is both insulting and ignorant.

To correct the record, the ACCP is a charitable organization founded in 2001 to help educate the American public about issues of concern to US collectors, including the importation of cultural property; problems arising when artwork looted by the Nazis is introduced into the legitimate art market; and the chilling effect on loans to museums created by legal action against US museums with respect to artwork borrowed from abroad.

The ACCP is composed primarily of collectors, curators, museum directors and others in the US art community, including a few legal experts. It does not include antiquities dealers. Contrary to what has been written elsewhere, no individual involved with the council collects or deals in "stolen" antiquities or "Nazi loot."

The ACCP was not formed to influence US policy regarding Iraqi antiquities. It was not, as has been written elsewhere, "formed in some haste precisely because of the forthcoming war in Iraq," with the "spoils of war on their mind," nor has it met the President of the United States. It has never lobbied the US government to revise any legislation.

In October 2002, in the absence of any expressed interest of the US scholarly, archeological or other communities, the ACCP took the initiative in urging the secretaries of State and Defense to protect Iraqi cultural property in the event of war. An op-ed article expressing these concerns was signed by the president of the ACCP and the president of the Association of Art Museums (Ashton Hawkins and Maxwell Anderson, "Preserving Iraq's Past," Washington Post, November 29, 2003).

As a result, in January 2003, the presidents of the ACCP, the Association of Art Museum Directors, the World Monuments Fund and the American Association for Research in Baghdad met officials at the Defense and State departments.

The purpose of the meeting with the Defense Department was to update its database in order to avoid damaging Iraqi archeological sites and monuments. At the meeting with the State Department, the delegation expressed the need to strengthen the administration of Iraqi archeological sites after any war to prevent the kind of looting that occurred after the first Gulf War. These were the only meetings held by members of the ACCP with any representatives of the US government.

At no point during these meetings, or after, has the ACCP discussed the question of reforming Iraqi law. The president of the ACCP stated in Science magazine that Iraq's current cultural patrimony laws were appropriate and should remain in effect. The ACCP has not otherwise taken a position on the laws of Iraq or any other nation.

In particular, the ACCP has never discussed with or proposed to anyone in the US government either the "controlled deaccession" of excess museum inventory or the "partages" of excavated finds among Iraqi and US museums. Whatever the merits of those ideas, they are simply not on the table.

In Science magazine, I characterized Iraqi cultural property laws as "retentionist," a term commonly used by US legal scholars of all viewpoints--and the archeological community--to describe a cultural policy of nationalization and embargo. Iraq's national patrimony law dates to the 1930s. This is in contrast to the laws of a number of other nations, like England, Japan, Italy, South Korea, China, Lebanon and Israel, that permit the certification and legal export of cultural objects under controlled circumstances.

I also expressed my hope that Iraq would, in the future, grant more excavation permits to archeologists, consider export permits for redundant objects that had been lawfully excavated and certified for export, and that Iraqi conservation efforts should be supported. I made these statements in my private capacity as a lawyer experienced in cultural property matters and not on behalf of the council. These statements were distorted by an irresponsible and sensationalist press into the exact opposite of what they say and mean.

Any informed discussion of the US antiquities market must begin with the fact that the US 1983 Cultural Property Implementation Act provides for a balancing of interests among archeologists, museums, dealers and the public. That act requires that each of these constituencies be represented on our Cultural Property Advisory Committee (CPAC). The act rejects extremist arguments in favor of either a free market or a ban on all trade. Instead, it allows the US to grant import restrictions on cultural objects depending on whether a foreign applicant satisfies specified criteria. Italy was granted broad restrictions; Canada's have expired. I have always advocated a reasoned middle ground with respect to cultural property issues, consistent with a fair reading of that act.

The United States has the most heavily regulated antiquities market in the world, a confused and confusing overlay of criminal laws, customs regulations and CPAC import restrictions. By contrast, the primary markets into which looted Iraqi materials appear to be flowing--Damascus, Amman, Teheran and the Gulf states--and the secondary markets--Paris, London, Munich--are virtually unregulated.

The notion that American dealers and collectors are conspiring to loot Iraq, and that they are lining up to charge fresh Iraqi antiquities on their credit cards, is as absurd as it is insulting. US dealers were among the first to issue strong statements denouncing the looting and pledging their efforts to bar looted Iraqi objects from the US market.

US collectors and dealers are in shock, both at the looting the ACCP worked so hard to prevent, and because they are blamed for it. The art world and the archeological community should be grateful that those in a position to help did so, and should take care to consider the nuance of complex issues of law and policy before rushing irresponsibly to judgment.

WILLIAM G. PEARLSTEIN

PS: I am a lawyer, not a collector, and my tastes run to nineteenth-century naturalism, not antiquities.


BAHRANI REPLIES

New York City

William Pearlstein takes great offense at what I wrote for The Nation. I hope he will accept my representation that the intent of my writing the article was not to insult him but simply to express my view that the Iraqi Department of Antiquities should be involved in decisions affecting antiquities found in Iraq, which the people of Iraq rightfully own.

Pearlstein explains that he was not speaking for the ACCP when he called Iraqi antiquites laws retentionist or when he expressed hope that more excavation and export permits would be given for Mesopotamian antiquities, and I accept his representation that he made these statements in his private capacity as a lawyer experienced in cultural property matters rather than as a member of the ACCP. As to what "has been written elsewhere" about the ACCP's involvement with stolen antiquites or Nazi loot, I cannot be responsible for what others write, or have written, about the ACCP.

I remain disturbed by articles that report that certain people are concerned with the future of excavation permits for foreign archeologists and with whether Iraq will allow some of its antiquities to be exported and sold on the open market. Iraq has suffered, and continues to suffer, a huge loss from both the war in general and the horrific looting that has occurred at the National Museum and Archives, and at countless archeological sites. American and foreign museums, dealers and collectors possess a huge quantity of Mesopotamian objects. For them, or anyone, to be concerned at this time with acquiring more Mesopotamian antiquities seems strange to me. Rather than focus on acquiring more antiquities, I think it would be more appropriate for organizations, perhaps including the charitable ACCP, to consider how to help the Iraqis rebuild their collections, through long-term loans of antiquities and gifts.

I was pleased to learn from Pearlstein's letter more about the interests of the ACCP and hope that more information about this organization will be forthcoming.

ZAINAB BAHRANI

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