[Ancientartifacts] Beware of Directors Bearing Guidelines?

Beware of museum directors writing ethical guidelines (Museums Adopt New
Antiquities Guidelines)


Beware of museum directors writing ethical guidelines...

First of all: one must wonder which role source countries played in
establishing these guidelines. It seems none.

The new guidelines may mean a tightening of earlier guidelines but once
again really create a lot of room for acquiring illicit antiquities for as
long as there is 'proof' - there are too many examples of forged provenances

- that these antiquities left the country of origin before 1970.

In other words: anything illicitly excavated and smuggled out the country of

origin is licit in the eyes of the Association of Art Museum Directors
(membership from United States, Canada, and Mexico).


Read the full statement at:



It's time, I think, to consider and discuss what constitutes a fair and
reasonable burden to place upon those who form and maintain antiquities
collections, be they public or private.

Ton Cremers evidently believes that the full burden of assuring that an
object has not originated in an illicit excavation or illicit export
properly rests upon the individual or institution considering its
acquisition - including whatever investigative work may be required to
definitively establish the authenticity of the object's provenance.

This is a far more stringent standard than institutions or individuals are
held to in almost any other field of human endeavor. In commerce, for
example, one is not charged with unethical conduct for accepting manifests,
customs declarations or other papers that have been falsified, so long as
one was not aware of the crime. There is a limit to the level of scrutiny
that can reasonably be expected, otherwise commerce would be practically
impossible. Bankers are not jailed for accepting counterfeit currency. As
for the occasional examples of falsifications that normal and prudent
diligence does not detect, there are police authorities to deal with the
criminals and when caught, they are usually dealt with in a manner that
discourages such illicit behavior.

In dealing with illicit trafficking in cultural property, by all means let's
apprehend the criminals who do this and deal with them as they deserve. But
there is another very important ethical consideration here: fairness. I
believe that it is unfair and also unethical for advocates of cultural
property preservation to attempt to place an unreasonable burden of
investigation and verification upon those who form and maintain collections,
simply because governmental authorities have not shown themselves to be
able, or to have the necessary interest, to control looting and illicit
trafficking in antiquiteies and other cultural property. Let's place the
investigative and policing burden where it properly belongs: upon
governments that have the necessary powers and resources, rather than upon
private institutions and individuals that cannot reasonably be expected to
be able to carry out extensive and costly investigations.

One of the considerations that has had a powerful effect upon deterring
major collecting nations such as the USA, Great Britain and Germany from
acceding to the 1995 UNIDROIT Convention is the novel legal doctrine that an
acquirer has an affirmative duty to verify provenance, tracing an object's
history back either to its origin or to a date sufficiently remote to
preclude its having been recently excavated or illegally exported. This
extremely controversial doctrine is not required by present law in nations
that have not adopted the Unidroit Convention. Collecting interests view it
as an unreasonably burdensome demand that cannot be complied with in
collecting many types of cultural objects, stamps and coins for example.

Museums which have voluntarily adopted the "Unidroit Standard" for
provenance verification have reported that it is taking an inordinate amount
of curator time, something like 40 hours per object according to reports I
have read, to document the provenance of well known objects borrowed from
other museums or long established collections for exhibitions. This is
clearly a burden which no private individual could reasonably be expected to
deal with, and which even major institutions are finding to be daunting.

In the "cultural property war" that has recently developed between cultural
property preservation advocates and collecting interests, one of the major
factors that motivates collector's rights advocates to distrust the motives
of the presrvation lobby and also governmental agencies responsible for
enforcing cultural property laws is suspicion that there is a hidden agenda.
That being, to make collecting of antiquities and other cultural property
impossible in practice, by imposing laws and regulations such as import
restrictions and the Unidroit Convention, which would make it so difficult
to comply with the requirements that no one would be able to collect. In
other words, to strangle collecting in a morass of unreasonably burdensome
regulatory and legal documantation requirements.

That suspicion has recently led to a lawsuit being filed by coin collecting
advocacy interests to compel the US State Department to publicly disclose
documents relating to processes being followed in administering the US
response to requests from other nations to impose import restrictions on
antiquities, specifically including coins. It is a sad state of affairs
indeed, when law abiding citizens of a nation such as the USA have come to
feel that they can no longer trust their government to fairly and
impartially administer its laws, and that they have good reason to believe
that its officials have improperly and clandestinely made common cause with
those who desire to eliminate private collecting.

Asserting that those who form and maintain private and institutional
collections of antiquities and other cultural property have ethical duties
and obligations that transcend not only existing laws, but also the limits
of what can reasonably be achieved in practice, is not going to be helpful
in bridging a widening gulf between cultural preservation interests and
collector's rights advocates.

Dave Welsh
Unidroit-L Listowner


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