“Retentionist” or just doing the right thing?

{credit}AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin{/credit}Click to view objects returned to Italy

According to KVAL.com article “Stolen Italian antiquities recovered from Oregon home” Phillip Pirages, the book dealer whose manuscript pages were forfeited by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement “was very impressed with how serious the (Italian) government was about reclaiming these[.]”

AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin
A Roman Marble Janiform Herm, circa first century, showing a depiction of an old and young satyr, is one of several cultural artifacts taken from Italy that are being returned to Italy, seen during a repatriation ceremony at the Italian Embassy in Washington, Thursday, April 26, 2012. The objects were seized by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) and Italy's Carabinieri.

Indeed, Italy is not alone in its determination to reclaim its cultural patrimony. In recent years, many culturally rich “source” countries are quite serious as well in their call for repatriation. While dealers, collectors, and other stakeholders— such as those who advocate for the unregulated acquisition and trade of cultural property— may question the validity of other countries’ cultural patrimony laws and criticize the effectiveness of their enforcement, no meaningful alternative to the 1970 UNESCO Convention, now ratified by some 120 countries around the world, has been proposed.

With the widely publicized repatriation of antiquities and a general increase in public awareness surrounding these issues, failure to respect national and international laws makes the acquisition of dubious artifacts a high-risk venture. This fact, plus the increasing willingness of source countries to sign long-term reciprocal loan agreements with foreign museums, are bringing decades of pushback to an end. Criticism of source countries as “retentionist”; legal actions to impede the implementation of the 1970 UNESCO Convention in the United States by CPAC; calls for fewer restraints on the importation of artifacts to benefit “hobbyist” collectors and “world museums” to stock their galleries with “artistic creations that transcend national boundaries” are being replaced by a new question in the cultural property debate. The question today is: how to reconcile the growing claims made by source countries in Asia, Africa, South America and the Middle East, on cultural property in museum collections outside the countries of origin?

“Once we established that they were stolen, he voluntarily agreed to surrender them,” said ICE special agent Melissa Cooley. “He didn’t fight the forfeiture.”

Citing cooperation, the book dealer will not be charged. Perhaps Pirages has the right idea: doing the right thing is never wrong.

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