“An Obscure State Department committee…

… has been the focus of fierce battles between archaeologists and dealers.”

This is how author Jeremy Kahn characterized the President’s Cultural Property Advisory Committee (CPAC) in a full-page article in the New York Times (“Is the U.S. Protecting Foreign Artifacts? Don’t Ask,” April 8, 2007). I was a Clinton appointee to that committee, serving from 2000 to April 2003, when I and two other members resigned in the wake of the looting of the National Museum of Iraq, in Baghdad.

The work of CPAC, which was created in 1983 by legislation intended to give effect to ratification of the UNESCO Convention on cultural property (1970), is to make recommendations to the State Department on applications from foreign nations asking, in effect, that their export laws governing cultural property become our import laws. From its inception, the committee’s activities have been highly secretive; in recent years, its internal deliberations have become increasingly contentious, as the archaeologists’ voice has come to dominate the collectors and dealers on the committee.

The hot issue now is whether the State Department will accept, on CPAC’s recommendation, a sweeping ban on the import of Chinese art and artifacts predating 1911. (The often-repeated counterarguments are that the Chinese have yet to clean up their own art-dealing house and that the share of the Chinese trade is relatively small, and will simply go elsewhere.)

The points made by Kahn, and through him, by his many sources on and off the committee, including its present chair, Jay Kislak, are right on the mark. The archaeologists’ voice and values are disproportionately strong among the CPAC membership, and its activities are overly secretive and exclusionary.

For CPAC to function as intended, its 11 members must not only legitimately represent the interests of their designated constituencies—archaeologists, museums, the art trade, and the general public—they must also be committed to be guided in their deliberations by the four “determinations” set out in the 1983 legislation.

To quote Jeremy Kahn:

“…[the foreign nation]…must document the extent to which pillaging jeopardizes important cultural sites and objects. It must provide evidence that it is combating looting inside its borders. It must establish that the American market in these objects is large enough to warrant more control and that other methods to address looting are not available. …so American dealers and collectors are not unfairly disadvantaged.”

A final, “quid-pro-quo” determination, not mentioned by Kahn, has to do with what they might reasonably expect in return from the requesting nation, in terms, most notably, of extended loans for scholarly and educational purposes.

The problem with each of these requirements is one of threshold; namely, how much looting, effort to stop looting, multi-national cooperation in interdicting movement of looted material, is sufficient to warrant action by the U.S. government that will come at the disadvantage of at least some of its citizens.

In these deliberations, committee members are challenged to rise above their individual, parochial interests to address these questions against a backdrop of shared interests and values—and simple common sense. And even if this lofty state of being should someday come to pass, which many of us doubt, there remains one disturbing lacuna both in the wording of the determinations and in the spirit of the committee’s deliberations; namely, a recognition of the validity and value of the movement of cultural property across borders for the purpose of collecting—the principle that lies at the very heart of the great encyclopedic museums of the world.

This, if acknowledged and acted upon by the committee, would provide the necessary counterbalance to its laudable work of protecting archaeological sites. Protected sites should be the penultimate goal of CPAC; its ultimate goal should be the controlled movement of cultural property across borders.

If this is not our vision and strategy, how can we ever hope that it might someday become a shared international vision and strategy?

As for the two theses of the Kahn’s article, that the membership of CPAC is skewed toward the archaeologists’ perspective and that the committee’s activities inappropriately secretive, I fully agree. More sunshine would be good, both for the committee, so that its deliberations might be better informed by information coming from outside its own tight circle, and for the public at large, so that it will be fully aware of those entrusted with setting U.S. foreign cultural policy, and hold them accountable.