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International Cultural Property Protection at the U.S. Information Agency

Bonnie Magness-Gardiner

When Congress passed the Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act (the Act), it enabled the United States to participate in the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export, and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. The treaty is designed to further international cooperation in protecting cultural artifacts from pillage and unlawful trade. The Act not only provides a means for the return of stolen goods, but allows the United States to impose import restrictions on certain categories of archaeological or ethnological material when the pillage of such material jeopardizes the cultural heritage of the country of origin. Protecting international cultural property under the Act is a multifaceted cooperative effort, including advisory work by the Cultural Property Advisory Committee, enforcement and prosecution efforts by United States Customs and the Department of Justice, and education and exchange programs at the U. S. Information Agency (USIA). Effective October 2, 1999, USIA will be consolidated with the Department of State. U.S. treaty obligations under the 1970 UNESCO Convention will continue to be met by the State Department.

The Cultural Property Advisory Committee, headquartered at and supported by USIA, is central to the implementation of the Act. Appointed by the president for three-year terms, the 11 members include two members who represent museum interests; three experts in archaeology, anthropology, or ethnology; three experts in the international sale of cultural property; and three members who represent the general public. SAA members Prudence Rice, Hester Davis, and Susan McIntosh currently serve on the committee representing the archaeological community; Miguel Angel Corzo and Richard Lanier represent the general public; Lawrence Reger and Stephen Weil represent the museum community; and Gerald Stiebel serves as an expert in the international sale of cultural property. Martin Sullivan, director of the Heard Museum, serves as chairman.

The Act charges the committee with reviewing requests for import restrictions from state parties to the 1970 UNESCO Convention. After reviewing a request, the committee makes a recommendation to the USIA director who carries out the president's decision-making functions. Consistent with committee recommendations, the United States has assisted Bolivia, Canada, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mali, and Peru in protecting their cultural heritage by imposing U.S. import restrictions on specific categories of archaeological or ethnological objects. An announcement in the Federal Register activates the import restrictions. After the date of the Federal Register notice, the objects in the specified categories may not enter the United States unless accompanied by an export certificate from the country of origin.

U.S. Customs and the Department of Justice enforce the import restriction and other provisions of the Act. Each of these agencies has been active in returning illegally imported objects to their home country. In Miami, U.S. Customs seized a shipment of ancient Peruvian artifacts smuggled into the United States as tourist souvenirs. The artifacts will be returned to Peru after a period of display at a local Florida museum. A recent undercover operation in Philadelphia netted an important gold Moche backflap that had been looted from Sipan. The University Museum at the University of Pennsylvania exhibited the backflap last summer before it was returned to Peru.

In February, the Department of Justice announced that an 18th-century manuscript seized by the U.S. government from Sotheby's has been ordered forfeited to the United States for eventual return to the Mexican National Archives. This manuscript had been stolen from the archives and sold to a dealer in Mexico. Without declaring it to U.S. Customs, the dealer brought the manuscript to the United States and sold it to a collector. When the collector put the manuscript up for auction, it was reported to the Mexican authorities who requested help from the U.S. government in recovering the stolen work.

The implementation of the Act is a truly international cooperative effort to protect cultural heritage. In the agreements that accompany import restrictions, the United States and the state party agree to promote documentation, preservation, cultural heritage education, and other activities. USIA exchange programs offer support for these activities in various ways. The International Visitor Program, for example, brings cultural heritage professionals, archaeologists, curators, conservators, and others to the United States to meet with their counterparts to broaden their knowledge, skills, and tactics for preserving their country's cultural patrimony. The USIA also may send American specialists to the country with which the United States has an agreement. Archaeologist James Brady, for example, spent three weeks in Guatemala to consult about the design of an archaeological materials laboratory. The Fulbright Scholar Program also assists in this area. A new fellowship recently was announced for a scholar with a background in Mesoamerican archaeology to develop programs in public education in the area of cultural property protection in Guatemala and El Salvador.

To learn more about International Cultural Property Protection, see the web site at The site provides information on legislative history, implementation, and recent committee activities as well as the full text of relevant legislation and all cultural property agreements under the Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act. The site features a new image database illustrating the categories of artifacts subject to import restriction. Over 500 images of materials from Peru and Guatemala are online now and illustrations of artifacts from El Salvador will be online soon. ·

Bonnie Magness-Gardiner, a consulting archaeologist, is a member of the Cultural Property Advisory Committee

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