ArtsPanel Symposium

The International Art Trade & the Ethics of Collecting

Ames Courtroom

Thursday, February 21, 2002, 2:45 - 4:45 p.m. 

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The international traffic in stolen, looted, and illegally exported art and antiquities rivals in monetary value the illegal trades in drugs or people. The McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research at Cambridge University has compiled a report that estimates 3 billion dollars worth of looted art treasures are being sold on the world market every year. Trade in Illicit Antiquities:  the Destruction of the World's Archaeological Heritage even links the art and drug trades, as the strong suspicion is the looted antiquities trade is being used to launder drug money.

The legal issues are complex, as countries take different approaches to such issues as the private ownership of ancient cultural artifacts, the equation of illegal export with theft, even such apparently mundane procedural rules as statutes of limitations. But the issues go beyond legal rules to questions of professional ethics. Are archaeologists complicit by studying and reporting on objects known to be looted? Are museums complicit in purchasing objects of doubtful provenance?

The Harvard Law School ArtsPanel has (ethically) acquired four of the world's leading experts for an in-depth discussion of this topic. 

Ashton Hawkins, JD '62, recently retired after 32 years as General Counsel to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. One of his early assignments was probing the provenance of the Met's famous "hot pot", the twelve-gallon calyx krater from 510 BC signed by the potter Euxitheos and the painter Euphronios.

James Cuno, the Elizabeth and John Moors Cabot Director of the Harvard University Art Museums for the past decade and current president of the Association of Art Museum Directors, has been outspoken in defense of the obligation of museums to collect and preserve, so that scholars may study and report, so that the public may understand and enjoy. Museums are and should be prohibited from acquiring works illegally, but Cuno would treat objects as innocent until proven guilty.

James Fitzpatrick is a senior partner in the Washington law firm of Arnold & Porter where he specializes in constitutional and public policy issues. Vice-Chairman of the Board of the Phillips Collection, Mr. Fitzpatrick has been active in the “culture wars” of the last few decades. He filed a brief arguing that Congress acted unconstitutionally when it required that the NEA take into account general standards of decency when making grants to artists. For six years, he served as the President of the Washington Project for the Arts, the alternative arts space which presented Robert Maplethorpe’s “The Perfect Moment,” after the photographic exhibition was canceled by the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington. He has also been involved in international issues of cultural repatriation, testifying in a number of Congressional hearings which ultimately led to the passage of the Cultural Property Implementation Act of 1983. He is the author of Stealth UNIDROIT: Is USIA the Villain?, 31 N.Y.U. J. INT'L L. & POL. 47 (1998).

Gary Vikan, Director of the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, is an expert on Byzantine and early medieval art. Before coming to the Walters, Dr. Vikan was Senior Associate for Byzantine Art Studies at Harvard's Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C. He has published and lectured extensively on topics ranging from early Christian pilgrimages, to icons, to medicine and magic, to Elvis Presley. He has been asked to testify as an expert in several cultural property disputes, from the provenance of the Kanakaria mosaics, see 917 F.2d 278 (7th Cir. 1990), to the authenticity of the Shroud of Turin. He is a member of the Cultural Property Advisory Committee, created to advise the President on the import of archaeological and ethnological materials into the United States.

Selected Background Materials:

·       Paul M. Bator, An Essay on the International Trade in Art, 34 Stan. L. Rev. 275 (1982) To view this article, click here to open a Westlaw session and display the article in your browser. Your Westlaw password will be required. Enter 34 STNLR 275 in the citation window.

·       John Henry Merryman, The Free International Movement of Cultural Property , 31 N.Y.U. J. INT'L L. & POL. 1 (1998) 

·       James Fitzpatrick, Stealth UNIDROIT: Is USIA the Villain?, 31 N.Y.U. J. INT'L L. & POL. 47 (1998).

·       Cristina Ruiz, My Life as a Tombarolo, The Art Newspaper, No. 112, March 2001, pp. 36-8.

·       James Cuno, The Whole World's Treasures, Boston Globe, March 11, 2001, p. e7. To view this article, click here to open a Lexis/Nexis session and display the article in your browser. Your Lexis/Nexis password will be required.

·       Linda F. Pinkerton, Museums Can Do Better: Acquisitions Policies Concerning Stolen and Illegally Exported Art, 5 Vill. Sports & Ent. L.J. 59 (1998)

·       Marilyn E. Phelan, The Unidroit Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects Confirms a Separate Property Status for Cultural Treasures, 5 Vill. Sports & Ent. L.J. 31, 1998.

·       International Cultural Property Protection page of the US State Department

·       UNESCO page on the Prevention of the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. See also UNESCO's Virtual Cultural Library

·       Culture Without Context, Newsletter of the Illicit Antiquities Research Centre of the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, including

·       Neil Brodie, The Concept of Due Diligence and the Antiquities Trade

·       Laura Pope Robbins, Sources of Information on Antiquities Theft (updated July 2001)


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