Iraq is reportedly seeking a new international agreement protecting antiquities as a response to the ongoing looting of saleable antiquities from archaeological sites there (Radio Free Europe, 'Iraq Seeks International Treaty Protecting Antique Artifacts', April 20th 2011).
Iraq wants to conclude a new international agreement that will designate the dealing of antique Iraqi artifacts a crime, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reports. Iraqi officials said the goal is to preserve the country's heritage from thieves and smugglers. Baha al-Mayyah, an adviser at the Iraqi Tourism and Historic Monuments Ministry, [...] criticized the international community for not doing enough to deter smugglers and looters. He said Iraq wants to abolish the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export, and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property [...] Iraq plans to convene an international conference at the end of this year in Baghdad to discuss the creation of a new international organization. "Its task would be to push for the cancellation or the amendment of the 1970 convention," al-Mayyah said. "It would have as members all the countries of the world that are facing problems with the looting and smuggling of their heritage."This would be a very interesting move. It is quite clear that a convention discussed and written in the late 1960s cannot possibly be applied to the changed antiquities market (especially in its dominating no-questions-asked variant) that has developed since the mid 1970s and then was again completely transformed in the mid 1990s by internet trading. It is totally inadequate to the task.
Iraq suggests that the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export, and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property "treats Iraq unfairly":
The 1970 convention urges signatory states to take all measures to prevent their museums from acquiring artifacts or art works illegally. It also urges countries to return such treasures to their country of origin. "But these measures are applicable only to cases that occurred after 1970," al-Mayyah said. "As for objects obtained before that date, these countries are allowed to keep what they acquired, even if it was done illegally."This is why Iraq plans to convene a conference attended by members all the countries of the world that are facing problems with the looting and smuggling of their heritage.
There seems to be a blurring of the distinction here between two things. the first is taking more effective measures against the ongoing looting and entering of freshly-looted items onto the international market, which we should be fighting in the interests of protecting the finite and fragile archaeological resource (the archaeological record, or what now remains of it). The second is the entirely different matter of objects dug up and which entered the market (and foreign museums) many decades ago, before there was global awareness and concern about looting.
Should we now create retrospective international laws forcing entities (individuals, museums, states) to return items taken a long time ago irrespective of the mechanisms of acquisition? What would that achieve? What problems would it produce? Would it be applied to every artefact, or just selected ones, and on what would the selection be based? Is the aim of the organizers to be the total dismantling of the antiquities market (and foreign museum collections with "universal" pretensions)? Obviously some countries have strong opinions about large swathes of their ancient cultural heritage being held by foreign collectors, they do not see this as beneficial to them, they do not see it as any kind of 'mark of respect', but as another form of expression of dominance and domination. Nobody, surely, can deny that it is their right to hold such opinions. Merely labelling it pejoratively "cultural property nationalism" (or "retentionism") by collectors is hardly helpful and avoids the question why these collectors want to hang on to it despite all. We will all watch the development of the plans for and discussion round this conference with great interest.
Vignette: British Museum Aidan McRae Thomson's photostream