Let’s do it again but better? Pros and Cons of Renewing the US-Italy Cultural Property MOU

by Tess Bonoli*

CPAC collage

Since January 19, 2001, the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the United States and Italy has offered an added layer of protection to Italy’s cultural heritage. It was designed to regulate imports of  pre-Classical, Classical, and Imperial Roman period cultural artifacts in the United States. The MOU is in response to a request from the Italian government, pursuant to Article 9 of the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property (the Convention). The Convention’s implementing legislation, the Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act (CPIA), came into effect in 1983. Article 9 of the Convention empowers any State Party whose cultural patrimony is in jeopardy to call upon other State Parties who are affected to assist with curbing the illicit traffic. These bilateral agreements last five years, and may be renewed an indefinite number of times, following a petition and a review of the bilateral commitments. On February 26, 2015, the U.S. State Department announced that Italy had requested a third renewal of the MOU; this request is currently under review – with competing interests advocating for and against another term.

“Italy is blessed with a rich cultural legacy and therefore cursed to suffer the pillaging of important cultural artifacts,” stated John R. Phillips, American ambassador to Italy. The current MOU requires that the U.S. and Italy both contribute their resources to work toward the shared goal of preserving invaluable objects of cultural and historical importance. The U.S. is responsible for restricting importation of materials on the Designated List (including categories of stone, metal, ceramic and glass artifacts, and wall paintings); upon the recovery of such materials, returning them to Italy; and providing public notice of the items on the Designated List. In turn, the Italian government is obligated to increase scientific research; guard archaeological sites that are known to be at risk from looters; develop Italian tax incentives for private support of legitimate excavations; institute more severe penalties for looters; regulate the use of metal detectors; provide ongoing training for the Italy’s national military police, the Caribinieri, etc. In 2010, Italy also agreed to facilitate U.S. access to its art and artifacts through long-term loans, permitting scientific analysis of those materials, by encouraging American museums and universities to participate in Italian excavations, and by promoting exchange and study abroad programs. Both countries further agreed to launch joint efforts to strengthen cooperation from other Mediterranean nations, publicize the terms of the MOU, and examine more ways to facilitate the legitimate export of items sold within Italy.

Since its inception, the MOU has guided the successful recovery and return of statues, sculptures, architectural fragments, weapons and armor, vessels, coins, wall paintings, and inscriptions. In May 2015, U.S. Ambassador Phillips generalized that the joint efforts of American agents and Italian investigators had “borne fruit in returning some important artifacts to their rightful home in Italy.”

Noteworthy returns that occurred in 2014 and 2015 have included objects recovered from American museums, auction houses, galleries, private collections and universities. For example, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo’s painting, “The Holy Trinity Appearing to Saint Clement,” was stolen from a private home in Turin in 1982 and discovered in a Christie’s online catalogue in January 2014. An Etruscan bronze statuette of Hercules, stolen from a museum in Pesaro in 1964 was recovered from a New York City gallery in October 2014. Pompeian frescos and a dog-shaped askos, looted from Pompeii in 1957, were recovered from a San Diego warehouse in February 2015. An Etruscan black figure vase with dolphins was seized from the Toledo Museum of Art, after it was revealed that antiquities dealer Giacomo Medici presented false provenance documentation to the museum. The Minneapolis Institute of Arts acquired an Attic red-figure vase from Medici, which was recovered after U.S. authorities learned of its falsified provenance. Three rare 17th century books, which were stolen from the National Historical Library of Agriculture in Rome and distributed among a private collector and Johns Hopkins University, were seized and returned to Italy. A second century sarcophagus lid depicting a sleeping Ariadne was recovered from a New York gallery and returned in 2015. Interpol, the International Criminal Police Organization,“estimates that the stolen art and cultural property market produces more than $9 billion in profits each year, and it’s the fourth most profitable black market trade after human trafficking, narcotics and weapons.”

Despite the undeniable success achieved by the MOU’s joint efforts, another five-year renewal is not guaranteed. On April 8, 2015, the U.S. State Department Cultural Property Advisory Committee (CPAC) met in open session (full list of attendees and CPAC members is available here) to discuss the renewal of the Italian MOU, with Patty Gerstenblith presiding. Peter Tompa, one of the presenters before the CPAC, speaking on behalf of the International Association of Professional Numismatists and the Professional Numismatists Guild argued against the renewal; he explained “import restrictions were never meant to be permanent. Rather, they were aimed at cutting market demand to allow time for a source country to get its own house in order.” Moreover, others doubted the practicality of returning such artifacts to Italy. Sue McGovern-Huffman, of the Association of Dealers and Collectors of Ancient and Ethnographic Art, asserted that “restrictions have been detrimental to collecting.  Over time, this will negatively impact museums that benefit from donations from collectors.  Import restrictions disadvantage American collectors versus those in the EU.” While McGovern-Huffman fully supports the MOU’s goal of preventing the illegal removal of cultural objects from Italy, addressing the CPAC she emphasized the vital role that U.S. art collectors and museums have played in the preservation and study of artifacts. She also cautioned that the current MOU severely inhibits the ability of private collectors in the U.S. to aid in such preservation and suggests that less restrictive means can be employed to achieve the goal of protecting Italian artifacts, without leaving U.S. collectors and museums at a disadvantage. Others echoes McGovern-Huffman’s concerns, and warned that the MOU’s rigid restrictions would “destroy the historically close relationship between advanced collectors and museums and inevitably impact donations of coins to numismatic institutions…likely to result in a drastic reduction in numismatic scholarship.” The Designated List, as McGovern-Huffman noted, includes common archaeological objects that “possess no special or rare features” and, because such items are so prevalent, they “cannot be realistically deemed of specific cultural, historical or scientific importance to the republic of Italy.”

In addition, concerns have been raised about whether the Italian government has been fulfilling its responsibilities under the MOU. According to Tompa, “in prior MOUs, Italy pledged to consider ways to make it easier to secure export certificates for archaeological objects legitimately sold within Italy itself. Unfortunately, nothing has been done to keep this promise, and, if anything it has become more difficult to procure them.” Attorney, Stephen Knerly, representing the Association of Art Museum Directors, stated “Italy has not lived up to its promises in the MOU to provide long-term loans. The only museums to get long-term loans are those that receive them as a quid pro quo for repatriation of artifacts.” Knerly emphasized that, even when U.S. museums do receive artifact loans, they are personally responsible for the expensive courier and insurance fees, as “Italy will not accept US State Department guarantees of indemnity and requires American museums to purchase insurance from Italian companies.”

Despite these concerns, supporters of the renewal, including Ann Stock, the U.S. Assistant Secretary for Educational and Cultural Affairs, explained that the MOU was necessary to combat an ongoing struggle and that “[t]he cultural heritage of Italy continues to be in jeopardy from pillage of archaeological material.” Professors Jane DeRose Evans, Alex Barker and Carla Antonaccio, all give the MOU unqualified support. Barker, whose university collaborates with programs at Rome’s Capitoline Museum, insisted that all legal requirements on Italy’s behalf have been met for a renewal of the MOU. Antonaccio explained that Italy was doing the best it can, despite a severe budgetary crisis. Finally, addressing the arguments raised by the numismatic collectors, Evans indicate that “locals and collectors and dealers should be educated to discourage looting. Even common coins have value.”

As the U.S. and Italy plan to decide on the fate of the renewal of the MOU by January 2016, these two nations will need to balance their individual concerns, regarding the conservation of their resources and their own access to the artifacts, with the overarching need to find the most effective means to facilitate the preservation of cultural objects and dissemination of knowledge. The U.S. and Italy may find that their solution is to amend the MOU prior to renewing it, as the parties did with first renewal in 2006 and the second renewal in 2011. Reducing import restrictions on coins, mandating a certain volume of annual artifact loans to U.S. museums and educational institutions, and removing particularly prevalent, nondescript items from the Designated List are all amendments that would quell U.S. concerns while continuing to aid the Italian government in protecting its cultural objects.

Since the adoption of the CPIA 32 years ago, 15 nations have reached MOUs with the United States, including Belize, Bolivia, Bulgaria, Cambodia, China, Colombia, Cyprus, El Salvador, Greece, Guatemala, Honduras, Italy, Mali, Nicaragua, and Peru. Consequently, collectors of antiquities in the U.S. have felt their opportunities shrinking as protections increase and restrictions mount; however, these MOUs has proven themselves to be a meaningful mechanism for safeguarding the world’s cultural patrimony.

Selected Sources:

About the Author: Tess Bonoli is a rising third-year law student at Brooklyn Law School. She received a B.A. in Classics, Latin, and Italian from Tufts University. She may be reached at tessbonoli@gmail.com.

Disclaimer: This article is for educational purposes only and is not meant to provide legal advice readers are not meant to act or rely on the information in this article without attorney consultation.

One thought on “Let’s do it again but better? Pros and Cons of Renewing the US-Italy Cultural Property MOU

  1. Nice post. Just a small quibble, but INTERPOL says on its site that “We do not possess any figures which would enable us to claim that trafficking in cultural property is the third or fourth most common form of trafficking, although this is frequently mentioned at international conferences and in the media….. It is not possible to put a figure on this type of crime, partly for the reasons mentioned above and partly because the value of an item of cultural property is not always the same in the country in which it was stolen and the destination country. Also, thefts of such property are sometimes not reported to the police because the money used to purchase them had not been declared for tax reasons or because it was the proceeds of criminal activity.” The $9 billion figure comes from god knows where originally.

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