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Closing U.S. Borders To The Illicit Antiquities Trade: Bilateral Agreements

July 30, 2018


The looting and trafficking of ancient art is a persisting threat to our shared cultural heritage. Nations that have faced conflict and other economic and security crises, in particular, are in immediate danger of their irreplaceable antiquities disappearing into the black market. With a bustling art market worth $26.6 billion, the United States is an attractive end destination for stolen objects. However, there are a number of actions that so-called source countries can take to keep their illicit antiquities off the American market. One powerful option is a bilateral agreement negotiated under the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export, and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property.

The U.S. implemented the 1970 UNESCO Convention with the Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act of 1983. This vital legislation allows any State Party to the treaty to request U.S. import restrictions on their undocumented antiquities. Once received, this request is then considered by the Cultural Property Advisory Committee (CPAC), and if approved, is then implemented as a cultural bilateral agreement or memorandum of understanding (MOU). Once in place, these agreements must be renewed by the requesting nation every five years, and during the renewal process, amendments to the agreement can be made.

Currently, the U.S. has seventeen bilateral agreements in place to close its borders to the illicit trade, as well as two emergency actions in which Congress passed legislation to restrict the import of undocumented cultural property from Iraq and Syria. This list continues to grow as more and more nations take this critical step to protect their history.

This interactive timeline provides a detailed history of the United States’ cultural bilateral agreements and emergency actions, highlighting the lengthy processes that these nations go through to protect their heritage, and demonstrating how the agreements got to where they stand today.

To learn more visit our page on bilateral cultural agreements.