Published: September 6, 2016
Bob Dodge founded Artemis Gallery in Erie, Colo., with his wife, Teresa, in 1993. The two are highly regarded specialists in the field of antiquities and have been used to consult on authentication by leading auction houses, museums and institutions. Artemis Gallery has brought forth some of the finest and thoroughly vetted ancient art to the market, so we sat down with Bob Dodge to talk cultural patrimony and the hot issue of the legal and illegal trade in ancient artifacts.
What are the federal laws concerning cultural patrimony in the United States?
The two most specific federal laws that cover the sale of items of cultural patrimony are the 1983 Cultural Property Implementation Act (CPIA) and the Stolen Property Act. The CPIA was passed in response to the United States signing of the UNESCO Treaty, also in 1983. It allows the United States to enter into bilateral treaties with select countries to prevent the illegal importation of cultural items. To date, the United States has entered into 17 such treaties. The Stolen Property Act states “stolen is stolen” and it does not matter when.
Are the federal laws helpful? Where’s the gray area?
I think no dealer or collector would argue that laws aren’t necessary to protect cultural treasures from being looted. We all realize that smuggling cultural items needs to be eliminated and that penalties for such smuggling should be consistent and severe. However, the two laws mentioned above are somewhat contradictory and I think the entire legal structure surrounding cultural property is gray — and it needs to be black and white. The CPIA states that items that have been in the United States for more than 20 years are protected under the “Safe Harbor” provision. The Stolen Property Act states “stolen is stolen” and it does not matter when. Additionally, most collectors and even dealers are fixated on the 1983 UNESCO Treaty. That treaty has no legal teeth and in the entire scheme of things is almost meaningless.
How could they be better?
I doubt if there are five dealers or ten collectors in the entire United States who understand these laws. I’ve had conversations with lawyers who specialize in this area who scratch their heads and profess that the laws are insanely complicated and contradictory. It seems they agree on one thing however — the laws do not benefit the trade (dealers), the collectors or the museums and only serve to benefit the lawyers. What we need is one set of laws that governs the trade in cultural property. That law should be clear, understandable, enforceable and communicated clearly for all parties involved. It needs to take into consideration the hundreds of thousands of items that are already in the United States legally.
What is the safe harbor provision and why does it matter?
The safe harbor provision is the part of the CPIA that makes the most sense. It states if an item has been in a private collection in the United States for more than 20 years — a rolling 20 years so the date changes each year — and there is no reason to believe it entered the United States illegally, it is now considered to have safe harbor and is legal to own, sell or transfer ownership of. If an item was purchased from an auction house or dealer over ten years ago, it is also considered to have safe harbor. And, if an item was deaccessioned from a museum more than three years ago, that item has safe harbor.
Therein lies the million-dollar question. In the United States there must be in excess of 100,000 items of cultural property without any form of documentation. They range in value from just a few dollars to items worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Based on several conversations with both the United States Customs Department and the FBI, they are under the assumption, perhaps delusion, that everything should have documentation — either an import document when an item came into the United States , or an export document for an item when it left the country of origin, or at a minimum a receipt of sale. But if you think about it, before the 1980s when the public consciousness on items of cultural importance was raised, ancient artifacts passed freely from one country to another. In the 1950s, you could buy ancient artifacts in Egypt from government-licensed shops, with no certificate of export required. When you entered the United States , you simply indicated you had bought items over 100 years old and they freely entered the United States with no duties and no import document required. There were few, if any, countries that prevented the sale of artifacts and most countries encouraged it as a way of encouraging the tourist trade and helping their economies.
How does buying antiquities today contrast with buying before 1980?
Looted artifacts have been a problem for hundreds of years. But before the 1980s the originating countries really turned a blind eye and, for the most part, allowed it to happen almost unabated. It was easy to travel around the world and buy ancient artifacts from shops and dealers quite openly. Today, most countries now have strict laws preventing the export of such items. Before 1980 a great deal of the sales of artifacts was done in foreign lands, or from foreigners bringing their wares into the United States for their clients to buy. Today, the vast majority of transactions are from the resale of items imported decades ago. Because so many items entered the United States before 1980 the supply and demand is pretty equalized with little need for “fresh” material to enter the stream.
How can dealers and collectors stay out of hot water when collecting antiquities?
First, never buy anything from a foreign seller offering freshly found goods, meaning never buy anything directly out of the originating country. Next, ask questions about provenance. If the seller indicates they were recently imported from the host country — run! Determine if the provenance passes the safe harbor provision. Does the family have sound evidence to support the item(s) has been in the United States for the last 20 years? Or is there evidence a dealer sold it more than ten years ago? Finally, if you are buying from a foreign source — French auction house, British dealer, etc — don’t ask them to falsify export documents. Declare the item exactly in terms of age, price paid, provenance and country of origin. Falsifying these documents is a crime in both countries and the quickest way to get something seized and potentially be arrested.
In the wake of extensive looting and the sale of artifacts by ISIS, the United States Senate voted to ban all antiquities imports from Syria in April 2016. Are you seeing these artifacts regularly and is there an influx into the domestic market?
Outside of a few emails we have received from folks in Syria offering fresh artifacts, we are honestly not seeing any appreciable increase in Syrian artifacts. If my suspicions are right, these looted items are more likely to find a home first in Europe where borders are a bit more porous. It may take a few years before these start to show up in any kind of quantity here in the Untied States.
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