Collectors in the market for Greek antiquities may soon find them harder to come by on this side of the Atlantic.
Standing at the Parthenon Museum in Athens, Greece last week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton signed an agreement with the Greek Minister of Foreign Affairs Stavros Lambrinidis to restrict imports of ancient Greek artifacts to the United States.
Once ratified by the Greek parliament, the agreement, called a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), would give the Greek government the right to restrict import of "cultural heritage" objects to the United States. It would cover a list of objects dating from the late Stone Age through the end of the Byzantine Empire in the 15th century. According to the State Department, the United States and Greece will agree upon a list of objects to be restricted, and the list will be entered into the Federal Register. This is the fifteenth such cultural heritage agreement signed by the United States.
The governments of many Mediterranean countries, including Greece, have been fighting a mostly losing battle over their national treasures for years. Collectors' high demand for Greek antiquities leads to looting and a robust black market for historical artifacts, which ultimately end up outside their country of origin.
The objective of the MOU is to prevent the illegal trafficking of antiquities pillaged from historical sites in Greece. But opponents of the agreement, such as the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), say that it also stifles the ability to engage in the legal trade of antiquities, which can hurt museums and educational institutions. They allege that part of the problem is that Greece is not doing its part to protect its own national heritage — historical sites are underfunded and corruption is rampant. The palpable reality of the Greek debt crisis helps to back up this point.
Recommendations about whether or not to sign MOU are made by the State Department's Cultural Property Advisory Committee (CPAC), which consists of eleven individuals representing different interests in the acquisition of artifacts: museums, archaeologists, experts in international cultural property sales, and representatives from the general public.
In October 2010, the AAMD's legal representative, Stephen J. Knerly, put out a statement urging the CPAC to reconsider the Greek MOU. "As a result of the dire state of the Greek economy and Greece's failed past efforts, Greece's protection of its cultural property is likely to only become worse. Accordingly, the Committee should seriously consider these circumstances in evaluating Greece's request for import restrictions," it said.
Secretary of State Clinton put a more diplomatic spin on the issue, using the agreement to declare confidence in Greece as an ally. During public remarks after signing the agreement she said, "Let me just conclude by saying that America is just as committed to Greece's future as we are to preserving your past. During these difficult economic times, we will stand with you. We are confident that the nation that built the Parthenon, invented democracy, and inspired the world can rise to the current challenge."
While a summary of the agreement is available on the web, the State Department is withholding the full text due to diplomatic concerns. It is Greek policy not to reveal text of legislation before it is ratified by the country's parliament.
The agreements fulfill obligations of the United States as a party to the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export, and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, which is meant to protect the pillage of cultural heritage in countries which have a rich history but limited means with which to protect it.
Similar agreements have been reached with countries as diverse as Canada, Iraq, China, and Cyprus. Most restrict imports of cultural heritage objects and are acquiescent to the requests of the country initiating the agreement. The major exception to that was the MOU signed between China and the United States, which was first suggested by China in 2004. China requested that the agreement cover objects up to 1911. The final agreement, not reached until 2009, only covers objects to 907 A.D.
The AAMD has frequently been opposed to MOU agreements. In a 2009 statement after a similar agreement with Italy, the organization stated that, while it encourages responsible collecting, "It is difficult to maintain that all objects from all centuries are indispensable to a country's protection of its cultural heritage."
“Treasure – If it’s out there, we’re going to find it!” (Tommy Vawter)
The administrator has disabled public write access.