They’re sometimes disguised as personal effects — fragile pots concealed amid negligées in luggage or ancient scrolls surreptitiously rolled up like newspapers in handbags. Smuggled antiquities have surfaced everywhere, from midtown Manhattan galleries to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. On January 13, an agreement to prevent looted Chinese antiquities from entering the United States was quietly renewed for another five years, though controversy has now emerged over how valuable it actually is.
First signed by the U.S. and China during the Bush administration’s final days in early 2009, the law made it illegal to import any archeological goods dating from China’s Paleolithic Period (c. 75,000 B.C.) to the Tang Period (A.D. 907), as well as sculpture and wall art at least 250 years old, without explicit government approval. Coming three decades after the U.S. resumed relations with China, it seemed promising. That same year, the value of antiquities imported by the states decreased from $250 million in 2007 to $120 million.
But the numbers aren’t so clear-cut today, as an article in the March issue of The Art Newspaper points out. Citing a new thesis, titled “The People’s Republic of China and the Foreign Art Trade: Where the Data Falls Short” and written by Alice Lovell Rossiter for Sotheby’s Institute of Art, it suggests that millions of unreported dollars worth of antiquities are still being smuggled into the US from China. Rossiter alleged that the Chinese have consistently under-reported the value, volume and nature of art shipments coming in and out of the country. In 2012 alone, the US imported $84 million more worth of Chinese antique objects than Chinese officials cited having exported.
Two opinion pieces published in the paper afterward reveal just how divided experts are over the results. Some say the agreement has created an uneven playing field, bolstering the Chinese smuggling trade while hurting U.S. business, as New Mexico lawyer Kate Fitz Gibbon argued in her op-ed:
There is no evidence that US import restrictions have had the slightest effect on China’s internal cultural losses or that cultural exchanges have improved over the last five years. China is capable of enforcing draconian laws against its own citizens, but while it harshly punishes small-time looters it encourages the elite-run domestic trade. Chinese ministries continue to demand high fees for tightly controlled, often highly censored, travelling exhibitions. The only result of the ban is that US citizens and institutions cannot import or collect items traded freely in other parts of the world, including in mainland China and Hong Kong. In fact, China has the world’s fastest growing and largest internal art market—focused entirely on Chinese art.
Others maintain that looting of Chinese archeological sites has diminished and that the deal has been a constructive step toward rebuilding U.S.-China relations. Laetitia La Follette, a professor of art history at the University of Massachusetts and vice-president for professional responsibilities at the Archeological Institute of America, defended the agreement in her op-ed. She says that cultural exchanges with the Chinese and long-term loans to US museums have increased since 2009.
In the last decade, the global political landscape has shifted. Restrictions on the trade in cultural artefacts are increasingly commonplace, as countries seek better control over their cultural heritage and the economic and educational benefits that preserving that heritage can bring. Bilateral agreements like the one forged with China in 2009 and renewed early this year present challenges but also great opportunities. To leave the bargaining table and abandon these agreements, as those who oppose them prefer, is to forfeit the leverage the US can have in this important arena.
For now, it seems we’ll have to wait another five years to know who’s right.