US Art News

US Art News includes current news, events, legal conflicts, foreign claims, and public policies affecting US museums, collectors and the art trade. Articles explore US laws regulating the international movement of art and antiquities, and US initiatives to prevent looting and protect global heritage.

US antiquities and ethnic arts policy was framed by Congress, but is implemented by federal agencies including the Departments of State, Justice, and Homeland Security. Some observers believe that federal agencies have overridden Congress’ intent to enact a balanced cultural property law that would discourage looting while ensuring public access to art. They say that US policies are now oriented toward ending the legal art trade, to the detriment of cultural understanding and exchange.

Since 1999, the Department of State has administered the 1983 Cultural Property Implementation Act. Current US policy prohibits import of virtually all art from 16 foreign nations, and the list is growing. Critics say that the State Department has ignored Congress’ requirements that embargoed art and artifacts actually be at risk from looting, that other nations have similar restrictions on trade, and that art-source countries take self-help measures to protect their cultural heritage.

Currently, art from many cradles of civilization – Greece, Italy, Egypt, Iraq, Peru, Central America and China – cannot enter the US without a permit, but these countries do not issue permits. Many of the same foreign nations allow trade in antiquities within their own borders. In some nations, government control of art and cultural heritage has political and social repercussions; cultural heritage claims are used to bolster dictatorships, encourage ethnic cleansing or persecution of minority religious or ethnic communities.

Other kinds of issues arise because there are two conflicting legal systems governing the transfer of international cultural property in the US. The Cultural Property Implementation Act protects at-risk archaeological resources based upon Congressionally mandated criteria; the National Stolen Property Act prioritizes foreign national ownership and enforces foreign laws. What is legal under one US law is illegal under another, a dangerous contradiction. Everyone, from art dealers to museums, believes that art stolen from public or private collections in foreign countries should be returned. However, many are concerned when the US enforces foreign laws that are ignored in art-source countries against US museums.

The US Art News pages illustrate conflicting perspectives on the future of US cultural policy. Advocates of wholesale repatriation consider much of American public and private collections to be ‘stolen art.’ Some even want to impose a ‘pollution tax’ on the legal art trade. Others think this contradicts both the legal realities and the facts, and denies America’s history as a melting pot of world cultures. More moderate solutions prioritize preservation, documentation, and public access, advocate hearing legitimate foreign claims in a neutral forum, and establishing clear and unambiguous US laws and policies.

October 17, 2017

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