Art market

China requests US impose embargo on Chinese art

China holds the US responsible for pillaging, however US cannot solve China's problems

The People’s Republic of China has requested an embargo on Chinese art to be imposed by US Customs under the US law passed in 1983 to implement the 1970 Unesco convention for the emergency protection of cultural property. The request covers an exhaustive catalogue of virtually all Chinese art produced before 1911: ceramics, bronzes, jades, sculpture, paintings, calligraphy, furniture, textiles and decorative objects. China has not asked any other country to impose these restrictions, implying that the power of the US market is responsible for the looting and pillage inside China and, therefore, that the Chinese government is unable to solve the problem without US assistance.

The Chinese petition has been referred to the US Cultural Property Advisory Committee (CPAC) for evaluation according to the provisions of the Unesco convention and the 1983 law governing US response to such requests. The US law contains specific criteria which must be satisfied before a request may be granted: a US embargo must be seen to have the potential to offer significant relief from a crisis situation of serious pillage; it must be conditional upon the implementation of self-help policies by the requesting country (China) including regulation of internal trade in antiquities, efforts to preserve and protect cultural sites, and other legal and policing efforts; and finally the law provides that US action must be taken in concert with similar action by other importing nations.

Unfortunately, the healthy debate and effective programmes envisioned by the framers of the US law seldom occurs. In the more than 20 years since the establishment of the CPAC, it has approved the initial request of every country which has applied for US import restrictions and it also has maintained an almost perfect record of granting renewals of all embargoes.

The Chinese embargo request clearly fails to qualify for approval under the criteria specified in US law. The list of items to be embargoed goes far beyond the limitations set by the Unesco definition of archaeological material written into the 1983 act. The Chinese government has no effective programme to control its booming internal market and imposes no restrictions on the free and lawful worldwide export of Chinese antiquities from Hong Kong, which has been part of China since 1997. Furthermore, auction sales statistics demonstrate the comparatively small scale of US buying relative to the global market and the booming internal Chinese market. The conclusion is inevitable: an embargo against the US alone will have no practical effect on looting in China.

Nevertheless, every one of the archaeologists and academics who spoke at the CPAC public hearing on the Chinese request in February gave the embargo their unqualified endorsement as written. Concerns about the negative effects of such an embargo on US museums, universities and collectors were dismissed out of hand. In the archaeologists’ point of view the only proper use of “cultural property” is for archaeological research. The activity of collectors and museums who are interested in artistic content and beauty as primary criteria is not only disregarded as of little value or consequence, it is seen as a source of incentive to looters.

Four prominent directors of US museums spoke eloquently at the hearing as representatives of the American Association of Museum Directors. Every one of them praised the important work being done by archaeologists in China and offered practical plans to establish realistic programmes for the protection of China’s cultural patrimony. But their sincere efforts, good ideas and offers of collaboration received no response from the archaeologists.

All the speakers at the CPAC hearing agreed that China has the duty and urgent need to protect its artistic heritage, and everyone agreed that more can be done and should be done inside China and around the world to further that important goal, but the only policy option proposed by the US Department of State is a Chinese art embargo to be imposed solely by US Customs. The strongest and fastest growing sector of the Chinese art market today is inside China. The Chinese government is now pursuing policies inside China which empower private collectors and dealers, actively supporting the rapid growth of the Chinese art market. It is hard to understand the efforts of officials in the US State Department to deprive US collectors of these same freedoms with an embargo plan which will not have any positive effect.

If the Chinese government were to institute positive programmes to provide incentives for its citizens to cooperate with archaeologists along the lines described in an editorial in The Art Newspaper (No. 155, February 2005, p.25: “Make the citizen your ally if you want to save the nation’s past”), there would be a dramatic improvement in the protection of China’s cultural patrimony. If the Chinese government also set up a coherent system to retain the unique and historically important works of art in China while permitting lawful, regulated trade in less important antiquities, I am sure that they would receive the support and cooperation of Chinese art collectors and dealers around the world.

The writer is the president of J.J. Lally & Co., New York

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'US Customs cannot solve China’s problems'