How to filter stolen cultural treasures out of the US art market | The Hill

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Sep 19, 2023, 6:00:42 PM9/19/23
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How to filter stolen cultural treasures out of the US art market


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Stolen antiquities are displayed at a news conference at the offices of the Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg in New York.

Stolen antiquities are displayed at a news conference at the offices of the Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg in New York, Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2022. Dozens of looted antiquities seized from collector and billionaire hedge fund founder Michael Steinhardt after a years-long investigation have been returned to the people of Greece, prosecutors in New York. (AP Photo/David R. Martin)

On Aug. 30, the United States and Yemen signed a bilateral cultural property agreement, committing both countries to combating the illicit trade of antiquities. The new agreement builds on and bolsters the emergency import restrictions put in place in 2020, to ensure that undocumented objects from Yemen that may have been illegally exported will not cross U.S. borders.  

Yemen has been experiencing the world’s largest humanitarian crisis due to a conflict that has raged for more than nine years following the Houthis’ coup in 2014, putting its rich cultural sites and artifacts at risk due to looting, smuggling and destruction. Yemen has five United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization World Heritage Sites

But in the midst of this crisis, while dealing with a significant loss of life, devastation to its communities and innumerable political challenges, the government of Yemen prioritized protecting its heritage — proving once again the importance of culture to a nation’s identity and history, and how its preservation during times of conflict can provide a sense of continuity and hope for the future. 

To make use of the international protections available, Yemen performed a series of Herculean feats in 2019, including ratifying the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property.

Recognizing that the American art market constitutes a significant 45 percent of the global total and often serves as the ultimate destination for pilfered antiquities from Yemen and other conflict zones, Yemen embarked on the complex process established by U.S. law and regulation to prevent stolen cultural heritage from entering the U.S. 

This resulted in the emergency import restrictions — a major milestone and victory for Yemen — which shut down the U.S. market for stolen antiquities from the country, which has also faced challenges to preserving its objects of culture from plunder due to terrorist groups like al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and extremist militants including the Houthis. 

Currently, the U.S. lacks the legal authority to move quickly to close its borders to looted antiquities from countries in crisis. Instead, it requires foreign governments to put together onerous applications and navigate a multi-step bureaucratic process governed by a 40-year-old U.S. law. While Yemen’s example shows that it can be done, this process is too heavy a burden for countries in crisis and can be inaccessible to nations who need it most. 

Recent conflicts in Afghanistan, Ukraine, Sudan and Niger show that we cannot always predict when and where culture will be under threat. A proactive system that allows quick responses to crises or emergency situations is a more effective approach for responding to growing threats of cultural racketeering. 

Yemen’s case of using close engagement with the U.S. government to fight antiquities trafficking can serve as an example to other countries around the world. It helped achieve the successful repatriation of 79 of its antiquities and the expansion of cooperation with cultural institutions for the preservation and presentation of its cultural heritage. 

The U.S. is a primary destination for pillaged artifacts, and the need remains imperative to curtail such illicit activity to safeguard cultural treasures like the ones from Yemen’s rich history, which have survived for millennia.  

Yemen’s civilians and heritage will admittedly remain under threat until peace returns, an achievement that can be accomplished only by supporting the United Nations’ efforts to end the conflict in accordance with relevant UN resolutions and the established terms of reference. However, the U.S. government can make certain the U.S. art market does not contribute to Yemen’s tragedy — or to the harm of other nations who find themselves in danger.

Deborah Lehr is chairman and founder of the Antiquities Coalition and CEO of Edelman Global Advisory. 

Mohammed Al-Hadhrami is the ambassador of Yemen to the United States. 

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