Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Museum in Baghdad Reopens

On Monday, the Iraq Museum in Baghdad reopened, despite controversy among the museum’s professionals and various government officials as to whether the museum was ready and could be adequately protected. Eight of the museum’s twenty-six galleries were opened, including a display of some of the artifacts looted from both the museum and archaeological sites in Iraq that have been returned to Iraq over the past six years.

A collection of news stories, photos (including one of a woman wearing replicas of ancient jewelry) and a video can be seen at: http://ancientworldbloggers.blogspot.com/2009/02/iraq-museum-open.html.

The story of the looting of the museum in April 2003 with the loss of about 15,000 objects is now well known, and the looting of archaeological sites particularly in southern Iraq (with the loss of perhaps hundreds of thousands of artifacts) has been documented through the satellite imagery studied by Professor Elizabeth Stone. Iraqi artifacts looted from the museum and from sites have appeared throughout the world, including most recently cuneiform tablets that were seized in Peru, reportedly on their way to the United States. Although surveys of a handful of better-known sites done last summer have shown that looting at these few sites has abated, less well-known and documented sites are still at considerable risk.

With the opening of the museum, Iraqi officials have announced the formation of a unit of trained guards to be deployed to protect these sites. Such protection, which is best carried out by Iraqi guards, is much needed and may help to preserve these sites for future study of the rich Mesopotamian past. The status of the reconstitution of Iraq’s other cultural institutions, the national library, archives and other museums in Baghdad and other cities, is not clear. But if the Iraq Museum can present professional displays, attracting visitors and providing security for its collections, then this is a hopeful sign that the reconstruction of Iraq’s other cultural institutions and the means to protect them will follow.

China’s Attempt to Prevent Christie’s Sale Rebuffed by French Court

Two of twelve bronze animal sculptures, representing the head of a rat and the head of a rabbit, which were part of the zodiac fountain of the Imperial Summer Palace of Emperor Qianlong in China and looted by British and French forces during the Second Opium War of 1860, are to be auctioned by Christie’s in Paris on behalf of the estate of the designer Yves St. Laurent and his partner, Pierre BergĂ©. The proceeds of the auction, which includes over 700 art works belonging to the estate, will be used to fund the Yves Saint Laurent Foundation. Chinese authorities have been concerned about the sale and would like to recover the sculptures without paying the presale estimate of $10-13 million for each sculpture. Chinese authorities also view repurchasing the sculpture as a tacit recognition that title to the sculpture could have legitimately passed to the current possessors.

A group of Chinese lawyers, representing the Association for the Protection of Chinese Art in Europe, sued in French court to prevent the auction from going forward. It is difficult to see what would be the legal basis for such a suit. In news reports, Chinese officials have been quoted as citing to the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property and the 1995 Unidroit Convention on Cultural Property. While both conventions clearly state that valid legal claims that predate the entry into force of these conventions are not negated by the convention, neither convention has any retroactive effect.

In addition, although France has signed the Unidroit Convention, it has not yet ratified it. Furthermore, French law recognizes the good faith purchaser doctrine—meaning that after the passage of time, one who purchases stolen property may nonetheless obtain title to it. Given the long period of time, close to 150 years, since these sculptures were stolen, it did not seem likely that redress could be obtained in court. The Tribunal de Grande Instance in Paris rejected the claim today and the sale is slated to go forward tomorrow. It remains to be seen whether the auction achieves the high presale estimates in this economic climate.

This case demonstrates the inability of international law, because of the fundamental principle of non-retroactivity, to correct what many would view as historical injustices. In some cases what would be considered today to be an injustice or illegal was not illegal at the time the act was carried out. In other cases, the passage of time has rendered a claim invalid. It is worth focusing on contemporary issues of looting and theft—as China has done with the new bilateral agreement with the United States under the UNESCO Convention to restrict the import of certain categories of undocumented archaeological materials.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Archeological Conservancy Brief of Amici Curiae

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Society for American Archaeology, the Archaeological Institute of America, and the Lawyers' Committee for Cultural Heritage Preservation submitted an amicus curiae brief in support of the Archaeological Conservancy in a dispute concerning Texas land with an archaeologically significant site.