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  • Beijing presses U.S. to restrict imports of Chinese artifacts
    11.05.2006 NEW YORK.
    By Stevenson Swanson, tribune national correspondent

    Whether it's Italy claiming that American museums bought looted antiquities or Peru threatening to sue Yale University over artifacts from Machu Picchu, recent controversies about the rightful ownership of ancient artifacts have focused on specific pieces.

    China is taking the opposite approach.

    In a request pending at the U. S. State Department, the Chinese government has asked the U.S. to ban imports of any Chinese artifact made before 1912.

    The proposed prohibition, which has come under fire from American art dealers and museum directors, would cover metal objects, ceramics, stoneware, paintings and calligraphy, textiles, ivory, and wooden or bamboo objects.

    The Chinese government says the sweeping ban is necessary because pillaging of archeological sites and smuggling of artifacts have become rampant in recent years, despite government efforts to stop them. The looting poses "a major threat to the protection of Chinese and world cultural heritage," according to a public summary of the request.

    "Driven by high prices, many looted and smuggled artifacts appear for sale in the U. S. market," the request asserts.

    Examples cited by the Chinese include "large amounts of illicitly exported cultural artifacts" that U.S. Customs agents in Seattle discovered in cargo containers shipped from Hong Kong to Seattle in 1997 and a stone sculpture from the 8th Century imperial tomb of Princess Yongtai that was seized in California in 1998 as it was about to be auctioned. All of the items were returned to China.

    The Chinese request was filed under the provisions of a 1970 international treaty governing the trade in cultural property. A U.S. State Department advisory committee of museum officials, archeologists and other experts held hearings on the proposal last year, but the Bush administration has yet to announce its decision.

    Although the request seeks an import ban on "pillaged archeological material," art dealers and legal experts say the proposal is so sweeping that it could apply to ordinary art objects such as vases and paintings.

    Nancy Murphy, an attorney specializing in Chinese law and owner of a New York gallery dealing in Chinese art, called the Chinese petition "a fabulous example of a vague and broad request."

    Ben Bronson, curator of Asian archeology at Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History, cited a collection of 800-year-old Chinese ceramics that was salvaged from a shipwreck in Indonesian waters and donated to the museum. He said it was unclear if the ceramics could have been donated to the museum if the import ban had been in effect.

    "I think there's a big difference between things that are outright stolen and things that were bought fair and square on the open market," said Bronson, who says the museum's policy is not to acquire anything without a clear provenance, or ownership history. "If somebody chiseled away a piece of sculpture from the cathedral of Chartres and sold it to somebody in California, everybody would think that was wrong."

    Neither the Chinese Embassy in Washington D.C. nor the State Department responded to requests for comment.

    The strategy behind such import restrictions on cultural artifacts is to reduce the economic incentive for pillaging. If looters know they cannot send the items they scavenge to buyers in the U. S., the logic goes, they will be less likely to take the risk of being caught raiding an archeological site.

    Experts in Chinese art do not dispute that pillaging is a problem in China, and there is a thriving global market in all forms of Chinese art.

    But American collectors are not the driving force in that market, according to James Lally, a Chinese art dealer who has sold works to such museums as New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Boston Museum of Fine Art.

    In 2005, he said, the Chinese government reported that an estimated $1.5 billion in Chinese art was sold within China, compared to $140 million in sales in Europe and $68 million in the U.S.

    "Far more art has been sent into China than has come out," said Lally, who spoke at a recent panel discussion here on the import-ban proposal. Noting that Chinese statistics can be unreliable, he said, "Even if you take off 20 percent, their market is by far larger than anybody else's."

    And American museums play a very small role in the Chinese art market. Only a handful of American institutions collect Chinese art.

    "Very few can afford the items coming on the market," said Marc Wilson, director of the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, Mo., which has a sizable collection of Chinese objects. "China has got to get its act together and stop tomb-raiding and stop using the U.S. as a scapegoat."

    But Magnus Fiskesjo, a Cornell University anthropologist, countered that many pieces bought by private collectors are destined for museums. He believes that U.S. museums should not acquire or accept any artifact that might have been looted.

    "Museums [have] the most prestigious [collectors] out there, and their actions have symbolic value," said Fiskesjo, a former director of a Swedish museum of Far Eastern antiquities.

    Several panelists said that rather than focus on import restrictions as a way to reduce pillage and smuggling, China would be better off if it created a reliable mechanism for deciding if artifacts that have been unearthed are important enough to qualify as cultural property that should be kept in the country.

    Lally pointed to the laws of other countries, especially Japan, where those who unearth antiquities are given an incentive to notify authorities of their finds -- either a financial reward if the piece is deemed too important to leave the country or an all-clear to sell it.

    "Everybody wants this kind of clear system with reasonable rules," he said. "The goal is the greatest access to the greatest number of works to the delight and enlightenment of all."