Art + Auction

January 2006, Art + Auction

China Urges U.S. to Embargo Import of Cultural Artifacts

A chilling effect

Dealers, auction houses and museum officials are girding for a possible embargo on the import of Chinese art, antiques and archaeological artifacts to the U.S. But a year after Beijing requested the blanket import restrictions, the State Department is still deliberating whether to impose all or some of them.

The request comes amid a turbo-driven international market actively pursuing Chinese cultural artifacts, and it corresponds with rising nationalist rhetoric by Chinese officials, who vow to retrieve the country’s lost cultural relics from abroad. Some 10 other countries already have agreements with Washington — made under the 1970 UNESCO Convention, which was intended to thwart the looting of cultural property — and the State Department is currently considering a request by Italy to renew a 2001 bilateral agreement that restricts the import of Italian antiquities into the U.S. But the Chinese request is by far the most wide-ranging, both in terms of the material covered — from the Paleolithic Period to 1911 — and the wealth and power of the country making it.

“Everyone understands that politically the U.S. is trying to befriend China as much as possible, and one wonders whether an art request is being used as a pawn for greater influence,” said a New York-based official at a major auction house. The Chinese request has been under review by the Cultural Property Advisory Committee, whose 11 members are appointed by the president and advise the State Department when countries ask Washington for art import restrictions. The committee held a public hearing in February, and then met in closed session on March 31 and April 1. According to State Department spokesperson Adam Meier, deliberations are ongoing and there is no timetable for a decision.

It is not clear whether the committee has already made its formal recommendations to the department, as some art experts believe. But even if it has urged the adoption of part or all of the request, any new controls would still be subject to bilateral negotiations between Beijing and Washington before they are put into effect.

It took several years to implement a decision to restrict art imports from Nicaragua under the UNESCO Convention, and the Chinese request is far more complicated. “It is fair to say that there are a lot of issues in this request,” says Meier. “There is a lot to be considered.” Any recommendation by the advisory committee would go first to Assistant Secretary for Educational and Cultural Affairs Dina Powell.

In order for the committee to approve the request, it must determine that China’s cultural patrimony is in jeopardy from the pillage of archaeological materials, that the country itself has taken measures to protect the patrimony, and that the import restrictions “if applied together with restrictions by other countries—would be of substantial benefit in deterring” the pillage.

The theft of cultural relics from ancient sites and museums in China jumped by 80 per cent last year, according to the official China Daily newspaper. But China has not requested that other nations which are party to the UNESCO accord and which also have large markets for Chinese cultural artifacts — Britain, France, Japan and South Korea — impose any similar restrictions, although these nations are also party to the UNESCO convention. Britain has already implemented domestic legislation limiting the import of undocumented cultural artifacts.

New York dealer James Lally argues that the most important trend in the Chinese art trade is the boom in buyers within China itself as a result of vastly increasing wealth. “Its market dwarfs any market in the world,” says Lally, who estimates that Chinese art sales in the United States represent only one-twentieth of what is sold at public auction alone in China. He and other dealers have concluded that it’s not logical to argue that the U.S. market by itself is the cause of looting in China, especially when they say that Chinese authorities are turning a blind eye to the origin of what is sold within the country.

“It’s all about China stepping forward and joining the ranks of the leading countries of the world,” Lally says. “Cultural pride is a major tool of that. They are very self-conscious about the decline of the Manchu dynasty and about the fact that when there were unequal treaties with colonial powers that they were not masters of their own destiny. They are determined to erase that memory.”

Within China there has been intense effort to acquire ancient bronze Chinese bronzes and sculptures for public collections. Partly in preparation for the upcoming 2008 Olympic Games, Beijing is building 32 new museums. At the same time, the government is encouraging the booming private art market in a country where, until 1990, it was illegal for private individuals to own or trade art.

In 2002 the Special Fund for Rescuing Lost Cultural Relics from Overseas was created with the support of over 200 Chinese experts and business people to buy back items bought by collectors abroad. “These cultural relics are the witnesses of history and precious cultural treasures,” fund director Zhang Yongnian told the People’s Daily newspaper. “Their loss causes a gap in the study of history. Moreover, for Chinese people, the loss of cultural relics represents a history of being insulted and invaded, so rescuing them can give Chinese people a feeling of patriotism.” In addition, The Poly Art Museum, which has ties to the Chinese military, opened in Beijing in 1999 with the aim of displaying traditional national culture and art “and to rescue and protect Chinese cultural relics lost abroad.”

At the February hearing, academics and archaeologists favoring the restrictions since they feel it is best for antiquities to remain in their country of origin faced off against museum officials and art trade representatives opposed to the import limits. “There is no doubt that the destruction going on today at sites all over China is catastrophic,” Princeton archaeologist Robert Bagley told the committee in defense of the Chinese request. Patty Gerstenblith, President of the Lawyers Committee for Cultural Heritage Preservation, argued that Washington should assist China under the UNESCO treaty “because we all gain from the increased understanding of our shared past that results from such preservation.”

Just what impact the restrictions could have on trade within the United States would depend on their scope, and given the breath of the request, it’s far from certain that the Chinese would get all they asked for. “Everyone’s very nervous and very frustrated,” said Laura B. Whitman, a former Chinese painting specialist with Christie’s who now works as a private art advisor. A broad acceptance by Washington of the Chinese request could virtually shut down the U.S. market in Chinese antiquities, she said. “But even if some items like paintings and calligraphy are exempt, it can’t help but make people a little uncomfortable, and buyers and collectors will stay away from the material. It will have a general chilling effect on the trade.”

“I’m convinced that there will eventually be an embargo but not as requested,” said London dealer Giuseppe Eskanzi, who holds annual shows in New York. “They might say that all archaeological material dug up from the Neolithic period to the Song period will be embargoed and you will need licenses or be able to prove it’s been in the West for a period of time or prove its provenance.”

“The reality is that it’s only going to be partially successful,” dealer Michael Goedhuis said of any import restriction. “Whatever is agreed by the American government is not going to be fully effective. Everyone gets around these things in the long run. I just hope that the American government is going to take a step forward for civilized life rather than buckle under.” Belgian dealer Gisele Croes agreed. “If the United States were to adopt the restrictions,” she said, “the international trade of Chinese antiquities will continue everywhere else, except in the US, and it will be very prejudicial for the museums and for Chinese representation in the States.”

Trade representatives cite Hong Kong as a massive loophole left unchecked by the Chinese government. “Hong Kong is an open market for Chinese goods; everybody can legally and without any problem export Chinese antiquities from Hong Kong. If this embargo goes through the rest of the world will be able to trade freely from Hong Kong and only the United States will be shut out,” said Jim Fitzpatrick, the attorney representing Lally.

Experts from Sotheby’s testified before the committee against the request, and Christie’s has sent letters to the panel urging that the import curbs be rejected or modified. The directors of four museums, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, and the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco also testified against the request. James Cuno of the Art Institute said restricting imports to the U.S. would do nothing to curtail pillaging and smuggling. “The request will have one effect,” he told the committee. “It will reduce the opportunities U.S. citizens have to study carefully and frequently the art and cultural production of China.”