Policy Brief No. 2: How Can We Fund the Fight Against Antiquities Looting and Trafficking? A “Pollution” Tax on the Antiquities Trade

The Antiquities Coalition Cultural Heritage Think Tank has published its second policy brief to address solutions to cultural racketeering. The latest release is by Dr. Lawrence Rothfield, Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Chicago. In the paper, Rothfield argues for levying a “pollution” tax on the legitimate antiquities trade, in order to establish an antiquities-protection “Superfund.” This would provide funding for funding more robust monitoring and enforcement efforts against the illicit trade and the strengthening of archaeological site security.  

The Think Tank was launched in November 2016 to explore innovative solutions to pressing challenges in cultural heritage, publishing a new series of policy briefs by distinguished specialists from the public and private sectors. You can find Lawrence Rothfield’s executive summary and link to the complete policy brief PDF below.


How Can We Fund the Fight Against Antiquities Looting and Trafficking? A “Pollution” Tax on the Antiquities Trade
Policy Brief No. 2 – December 2016
Lawrence Rothfield

Executive Summary

Almost every nation has laws against looting, smuggling, and trafficking in antiquities, supplemented by international bans and bilateral interdictions. Yet the playing field remains badly tilted against the site guards, customs officials, antiquities police, and prosecutors charged with enforcing these laws, in large part because enforcers lack the financial resources needed to do their job.

To supplement and give teeth to the strict but ineffectual legal regime now in place, economic thinking, and basic public policy research suggests it would be helpful to institute a “pollution tax” on antiquities purchased by residents of “market” countries. Such taxes—imposed on such transactions in goods like tobacco, gas, coal, etc.—are designed to internalize the social costs of economic activities so that the polluting industry either takes measures to clean itself up or pays the government to prevent or mitigate the harm the industry causes. An antiquities tax, tailored to fall more heavily on antiquities with weaker provenance or extremely high prices, and channeled into an antiquities-protection “Superfund” (as was done to clean up toxic chemical sites) or via existing governmental agencies, could provide a sustainable funding stream to pay for more robust monitoring and enforcement efforts against the illicit market and for better site security. Such a tax is likely to face substantial resistance from both dealers and archaeologists, but it is suggested that the concerns of both sides could be dealt with through sustained discussion and negotiation.

Read the Full Policy Paper HERE

About the Antiquities Coalition Think Tank

The Antiquities Coalition unites a diverse group of experts in the global fight against cultural racketeering: the illicit trade in art and antiquities. This plunder for profit funds crime, armed conflict, and violent extremist organizations around the world—erasing our past and threatening our future. Through innovative and practical solutions, we tackle this challenge head on, empowering communities and countries in crisis.

In 2016, as part of this mission, we launched the Antiquities Coalition Think Tank, joining forces with international experts, including leaders in the fields of preservation, business, law, security, and technology. Together, we are bringing high-quality and results-oriented research to the world’s decision makers, especially those in the government and private sectors. Our goal is to strengthen policymakers’ understanding of the challenges facing our shared heritage and more importantly, help them develop better solutions to protect it. 

To subscribe to the think tank publications—and to stay informed of the Antiquities Coalition’s other work to fight cultural racketeering—please sign up for our e-newsletter here.

After Long Delay, US and Egypt Sign Historic MoU Restricting Endangered Heritage from American Import


After Long Delay, US and Egypt Sign Historic MoU Restricting Endangered Heritage from American Import

The United States and Egypt signed a cultural property Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on Wednesday after lengthy consideration. The agreement, authorized by the Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act (CPIA), restricts American imports of designated archaeological objects from Egypt in jeopardy of looting. The bilateral agreement covers ancient objects dating between 5200 BC through 1517 AD.

According to a State Department press release, the MoU will “reduce the incentive for pillage and trafficking.”

The agreement took two years and seven months to finalize. Asked why the process took so long compared with other agreements, Nathan Arnold, Director for Media Affairs at the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, declined to comment. “It is the State Department’s policy to not comment on our private diplomatic negotiations with countries or internally,” Arnold explained. “Achieving agreement on specific language for bilateral agreements involves a process.”

Since the tumultuous spring of 2011, Egyptian cultural material has been subject to particular danger. Damage to archaeological sites, houses of worship, and museums was extensive, and cultural heritage objects remained under constant threat of plunder. That prompted urgent calls from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), Saving Antiquities for Everyone (SAFE), and other heritage preservation groups to take action. The International Council of Museums quickly published an Egyptian Red List to focus attention on illegal trafficking, and CHL in January 2011 and July 2013 urged adoption of emergency legislation.

Egyptian authorities did not officially ask for American assistance quickly under the terms of the CPIA and the treaty it implements, the 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property Convention. Officials reportedly spoke with the White House on March 11, 2014, according to Tom Mashberg at The New York Times, discussing “fast action on [US import] restrictions.”

At that time, CHL recommended that import controls be implemented “with all deliberate speed” because “the lack of comprehensive action to stem the looting and smuggling of cultural heritage [since 2011] has afforded heritage traffickers the advantage of a three year head start to move their ill-gotten gains to the United States.”

Egyptian authorities formally asked the State Department to enact CPIA import controls in April 2014. The move prompted immediate comments from preservationists, ancient coin collectors, the Association of Art Museum Directors, and other stakeholders. The Cultural Property Advisory Committee (CPAC) held a public hearing in June that same year, and then the matter retreated from public view. Meanwhile, news of heritage destruction continued to pour out from Egypt and the Middle East/North Africa region. Then came last week’s sudden public announcement that a bilateral deal would be signed, just seven weeks before the end of President Barack Obama’s final term in office.

While the US-Egypt cultural property MoU is an important cultural property protection agreement, it does not cover antiquities imported into the American marketplace prior to its adoption, overlooking imports that already occurred during the recent years of heightened heritage destruction. Customs officials and federal prosecutors conceivably could take action against prior shipments of illicit Egyptian artifacts under other federal laws. Homeland Security Investigations and US Attorneys’ offices did just that in Operation Mummy’s Curse, which involved the case of United States v. Khouli et al., and resulted in the repatriation of artifacts to Egypt during the MoU signing ceremony this week, including a mummy’s hand.

Cultural objects covered by the new MoU’s import restrictions may legally pass through America’s borders under certain conditions, such as when accompanied by either an export permit or proof showing that the artifacts left Egypt before the adoption of US import regulations. Prohibited cultural material may be detained, seized, and forfeited by customs authorities as contraband, and smugglers could face criminal prosecution, although that rarely occurs.

The US now has bilateral agreements with 16 countries around the world, as well as emergency import restrictions on cultural property originating from Iraq and Syria.

Deborah Lehr of the Antiquities Coalition noted her organization’s role in the US/Egypt MoU process, tweeting “proud to have been a partner,” and observing that “US and Egypt sign first cultural heritage MOU in Arab region.”

Video source: US Department of State

Text and original photos copyrighted by Cultural Heritage Lawyer, a blog commenting on matters of cultural property law, art law, cultural heritage policy, antiquities trafficking, and museum risk management. Blog url: culturalheritagelawyer.blogspot.com. Any unauthorized reproduction or retransmission of any blog post without the express written consent of CHL is prohibited. CHL is a service of Red Arch Cultural Heritage Law & Policy Research, Inc.

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