SAFE supports China’s request

The public sessions of the Cultural Property Advisory Committee (CPAC) offer a unique opportunity for the public to be seen and heard about issues that could have long lasting effects on our history and our future.

This report documents SAFE’s experiences at CPAC, with arguments on both sides, as well as facts, press reports, observations and conclusions. With this report, we hope to encourage more participation from all those who are interested in the fight against the pillage of our common heritage.

What we did

Following the successful appearance at the AIA Annual Meeting in Boston, MA, SAFE created a campaign to broadcast and support China’s request for assistance from the US to preserve its irreplaceable cultural heritage. The goal was to testify at the US State Department’s public hearing before the Cultural Property Advisory Committee on February 17, 2005.

January 25: Given SAFE’s commitment to raise public awareness, our priority was to provide background information about the situation. This was accomplished with the help of SAFE volunteers as well as the Archaeological Institute of America, and archaeologists and art historians from all over the world. In addition, we contacted officials at the Chinese Consulate in New York and the Embassy in Washington, and sought advice from cultural heritage experts in Beijing, China.

January 29: We launched an online petition, inviting the public to lend their support of China’s request. Press releases in English and Chinese caught media attention.

February 4: Cindy Ho, Elizabeth Gilgan and Jen Makrides submitted written statements to CPAC.

Feb 17: Noon. Twenty-two days into the campaign, nearly 500 petitions had been collected from individuals around the world.

12:30 pm. SAFE members arrived at the State Department to present the petitions to the Cultural Property Advisory Committee and deliver their testimony.

SAFE continued to gather petitions online, as the number exceeds 700.


The public hearing

On February 17, the Cultural Property Advisory Committee (CPAC) of the U. S. State Department held a public session to consider China’s request for import restrictions on certain categories of archaeological artifacts into the U.S. for a period of five years.

As a party to the Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property (UNESCO 1970), China is entitled to make this request. The United States—the first major art-importing country to do so—ratified the Convention and in 1983 passed implementing legislation: the Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act (CCPIA, 19 USC§§ 2601-2613).

The hearing is designed to allow CPAC to hear information from the American public relating to the four determinations that CPAC considers for the request at hand.

The meeting took place in a fully packed room, standing room only. Compared to many of the CPAC public hearings on requests from other countries, this was one of the best attended, by far. Scheduled to take place between 1:00 and 3:30pm, the public session did not end until nearly 5:00pm.


The speakers

Opponents (15 speakers): auction house staff, museum curators, one private collector, lawyers representing dealers and collectors associations, and art dealers. Opponents spoke first.

Supporters (seven speakers): museum curators, a law professor, an art history professor and three SAFE members.

It had been noted in some reports that Chinese representatives were absent at the hearing, implying that the government does not care. In fact, the Chinese government was represented by a delegation of three from Beijing’s State Administration of Cultural Heritage, which traveled to Washington to present to CPAC in a closed-door meeting on April 1. It was headed by the Deputy Director of the General Office of Cultural Affairs, Wang Jun. The delegation was joined by an official from the Chinese Embassy in the U.S who told SAFE that it chose not to attend the public hearing because the US State Department was working directly with China’s government organization that made the request on behalf of China.


The debate

The CPAC Chairman began by asking speakers not to repeat the points already submitted in writing and to focus their five-minute presentations on the four determinations in question.

The following is a recap of the points that were made, not quotes.


China is unable to safeguard its cultural heritage

  • Looting in China has taken place for a long time, an import ban now would not help
  • China destroys Tibet’s cultural heritage, therefore Americans should come to the rescue (Rochell)
  • The US should deny the Chinese request to show them that they must first strengthen their own laws (Houghton)
  • It is part of China’s culture to rob tombs (Wilson)

The growing size of China’s internal market

  • Why should Americans be denied what the Chinese themselves can buy?  (Fitzpatrick)
  • The Chinese taste for their own antiquities has shifted from imperial porcelains to archaeological material (Lally)
  • Chinese market dwarfs the US market and is several (an unkown multiple) times larger than the US market (Pearlstein)
  • All other markets overseas combined are not as big as the Chinese domestic market (Fitzpatrick)

The size of the US market is not so big

  • The market for Chinese antiquities in Taiwan, Singapore, Japan, Britain, France, Belgium, Thailand, exceeds the market in the United States (again by some unknown multiple) (Pearlstein)
  • US purchasing of Chinese antiquities has tended to remain static (Yang and McCullough)

Facts about the effects of looting questioned

  • Figures in the Oct. 27, 2003 TimeAsia article Spirited Away, by Hannah Beech, were disputed. For example, Chinese officials did not confirm the number of looted ancient tombs (220,000) mentioned in the article (Wilson)
  • US museums are able to determine if pieces have been recently looted (Wilson)

American interests not served

  • There is an increasing propensity by CPAC to ignore US interests (Houghton)
  • The job of US museums will be complicated, traveling exhibits (as an alternative to museum purchases) are tough to fundraise for (Sano)
  • It is difficult to study Chinese antiquities unless they are in a museum’s permanent collection (Sano)
  • A dampening effect on cultural exchanges with China (Reid)

The Chinese request should not be granted

  • The scope is too broad (Yang and McCullough, Cuno)
  • The Chinese request is not consistent with values of global exchange in cultural property (Cuno)
  • McCarthy-era restrictions stopped import of Chinese antiquities into the US and yet destruction raged in China under the Cultural Revolution (Lally)
  • The request does not meet the statutory standards (Fitzpatrick)
  • A request of convenience…The Chinese think they can get something here that they know they cannot get anywhere else
  • It is about controlling access to what the Chinese government calls cultural heritage (Cuno)
  • This is about restricting access to cultural material. (Wilson)
  • Internal political conflict between national and provincial officials (Wilson)
  • Will not save a single chopstick (Wilson)


  • The proposed import restrictions would take away the collectors’ hobby (Tompa)
  • Coins do not have the same archaeological value as other artifacts



Looting in China is severe

  • Specific examples and statistics showing destruction by illegal excavations (Ho)
  • First-hand knowledge of damage (Underhill)
  • Problem not unique to China (Ho)
  • Severe problem of looting in the US (Underhill)

Consequences of looting

  • Loss of irretrievable information (Ho, Bekken, Underhill, Bagley)
  • China’s size, population and long history mean there is much to lose and much to gain from what is still unexcavated (Ho)

China is doing what it can to stem the problem of looting

  • Legal ramifications: arrests, jail sentences (Makrides)
  • China prohibits illegal excavations (Gerstenblith)
  • China is one of the first countries to accede to the 1995 UNIDROIT Convention on Stolen and Illegally Exported Cultural Objects (Gerstenblith)

China’s request consistent with the 1970 UNESCO Convention

  • China is party to Convention (Makrides, Gerstenblith)
  • 1982 Cultural Relic Protection Law, amended in 2002 (Gerstenblith)
  • Sale of newly excavated archaeological objects against Chinese law (Gerstenblith)

China’s efforts to protect its own cultural heritage

  • Examples of Chinese websites and newspapers and other publications devoted to cultural heritage preservation (Makrides)
  • Examples of the ways local people contribute (Makrides, Bekken, Underhill)
  • Local people are proud of their country’s heritage and appreciative of archaeological fieldwork (Bekken, Underhill)
  • China has many good museums, including Tibet (Makrides)
  • China has sought to repatriate looted objects (Gerstenblith)
  • Not part of China’s culture to rob tombs (Ho)

The US market for Chinese antiquities is enormous

  • Sales of Chinese antiquities at Sotheby’s US in 2004 alone totaled $34 million (Ho)
  • 25% of the 84 archaeological objects (from 6000 B.C to 1750 A.D.) were sold for over $100,000 in 2004 at Sotheby’s New York, grossing over $7 million (Gilgan)

Objects sold in US auctions lack archaeological context

  • Of 168 objects auctioned by Sotheby’s New York in 2004 only 30 have provenance–ten since 1970 UNESCO Convention (Gilgan)
  • In 2004, none of the objects offered for auction by Sotheby’s of New York, had archaeological context (Gilgan)

It serves American interest

  • As the first major art-importing country to ratify the 1970 UNESCO Convention, the US should lead the global effort to protect the world’s shared cultural heritage

Bilateral agreements work

  • It has worked for other 11 countries, why not China? (Ho)

International exchange of cultural materials

  • Cooperative programs between China and the US have dramatically increased in recent years (Bekken, Underhill)
  • Granting the request will encourage more exchange (Ho)



Traditionally, the debate about cultural heritage preservation and the trade in antiquities has been dominated by the cognoscenti— archaeologists, art historians, dealers, collectors, museum curators, etc. By representing the wider public, SAFE’s presence at CPAC is a landmark initiative.

Never before has public opinion been presented to CPAC in the form of hundreds of signatures to an online petition.

The passion and dedication of SAFE—a group of volunteers who have nothing to gain personally, professionally, or financially in this matter —can be difficult for some people to understand. For SAFE volunteers, antiquities are not mere objects to buy and sell. They form building blocks of human history. As such, their value extends far beyond what they fetch on the market. We have everything to gain by protecting this invaluable heritage from looting.



We again urge the members of CPAC to recommend granting China’s request by signing a bilateral agreement to restrict US importation of Chinese archaeological objects.

Import restriction through bilateral agreements has a track record of success. Denying China’s request for assistance would be unprecedented. In the case of the 11 countries that have previously made similar requests, CPAC has recommended that assistance be given. In every case, a bilateral agreement was negotiated.

Denying China’s request because “the Chinese are unable to safeguard their cultural heritage” is akin to denying a person medical treatment who could not cure oneself. The fact is China has strict cultural property laws in place, seizes large numbers of illicit artifacts within its borders, metes out draconian punishment when offenders are convicted, and is investing significant sums to build museums in an effort to display and preserve artifacts as they are discovered.

Americans have long supported strict cultural property laws in the US A Harris poll conducted in 2000 found that 96% Americans favor laws that protect cultural heritage.

In the end, we believe that the war against the pillage of our shared cultural heritage will be won in the court of public opinion. We are encouraged by the support through our online petition, collected from all over the world in a matter of weeks.

SAFE is honored to be a part of the process that makes it possible for our voice to be heard and we thank CPAC for this opportunity. We are also grateful for the contributions of all those who joined in our efforts with their research materials, ideas, advice, and above all, their signatures.

“SAFE’s presence at the public session goes a long way toward raising public awareness about cultural heritage loss. The idea of an online petition is also a first.”

Patty Gerstenblith