The AC Digs Into: Cultural Property Agreements
May 19, 2021
Cultural property agreements (CPAs) between the United States and foreign governments are important tools to combat cultural racketeering. Under U.S. and international law, the United States can join CPAs to prevent looted and stolen antiquities and artifacts from entering the American art market, fighting the illicit trade while allowing the legal trade to continue and even thrive.
Read our FAQ to learn more about these agreements, why they are important, and how they are achieved.
What are Cultural Property Agreements (CPAs)?
Under the 1983 U.S. Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act (CCPIA), the United States may enter into separate international agreements with other States Parties to the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property (1970 UNESCO Convention). These memoranda of understanding can be bilateral (between two governments) or multilateral (between more than two governments). Either way, they close American borders to illegally exported archaeological and ethnological artifacts from the requesting country or countries, while protecting the legitimate art market and increasing responsible cultural exchange.
The United States has signed CPAs with a growing number of countries—including China, Egypt, and Italy—generating mutual respect, strengthening global law enforcement, and protecting American institutions and collectors from becoming unknowing criminal accessories.
Why are these CPAs important?
CPAs help to stop criminal activity at U.S. borders by keeping looted and stolen art and artifacts out of American markets. By restricting the import of undocumented cultural objects—those which lack a so-called “provenance,” or paper trail—they fight cultural racketeering, while allowing the legitimate trade to continue and thrive. In doing so, they protect the vast majority of responsible collectors, dealers, galleries, auction houses, and museums from being misused by criminals. Finally, they also aim to lessen global demand for illicit objects—especially since the U.S. makes up some 42% of the global art market—while increasing responsible cultural exchange.
What is the 1970 UNESCO Convention?
Much of international law can be found in treaties, which are binding agreements between or among States. The 1970 UNESCO Convention is the foremost international agreement to combat the looting and trafficking of cultural heritage. Its States Parties work together against cultural racketeering by removing its causes, putting a stop to its practices, and repatriating looted and stolen cultural objects to their country of origin. Moreover, “the import, export or transfer of ownership of cultural property effected contrary to the provisions adopted under this Convention by the States Parties thereto, shall be illicit.”
Currently, there are 140 States Parties to the Convention, including the United States, which was the first major market country to join in 1983.
What is the CCPIA?
Each country has its own process for enforcing international law in its own domestic legal system. In the United States, the President must first receive the “advice and consent” of the Senate before ratifying a treaty, and even then the agreement must be separately implemented into U.S. law (often through an act of Congress). The CCPIA (19 U.S.C. 2601 et seq.) is the United States’ domestic implementing legislation for the 1970 UNESCO Convention.
Again, the CCPIA enables the United States to join the Convention’s other States Parties in CPAs, which prospectively restrict the import of undocumented archaeological and ethnological materials into the United States, while promoting responsible cultural cooperation and exchange. Under certain circumstances, it also authorizes import restrictions on an emergency basis, absent a full agreement.
What other commitments are found in the CCPIA?
In addition to providing for CPAs, the CCPIA also prohibits the import into the United States of cultural objects that were inventoried and stolen from another State Party’s public institutions (e.g., museums).
What are the requirements for a CPA?
Under the CCPIA, in addition to being a State Party to the 1970 UNESCO Convention, there are four determinations a government must meet to enter into a CPA with the United States:
- The country’s cultural patrimony is in jeopardy from pillage of archaeological and/or ethnological materials.
- The country has taken measures to protect its archaeological and ethnological heritage consistent with the 1970 UNESCO Convention.
- Other countries that have a significant trade in the archaeological and/or ethnological materials that would be subject to import restriction by the United States are also taking steps to prevent the import of these materials.
- A CPA with the country is in the interest of the international community to encourage the exchange of cultural materials.
What is the process for achieving a CPA?
The process is not complex, but requires several steps.
A State Party to the 1970 UNESCO Convention may request a CPA from the U.S. Department of State through diplomatic channels. This request should be accompanied by a “Statement of Facts” and supporting documentation that together address the four required determinations under U.S. law (see above). The request is then reviewed by a Presidentially-appointed and independent body—the Cultural Property Advisory Committee (CPAC)—which will make a recommendation to the decision maker (usually the Assistant Secretary for Educational and Cultural Affairs) as to whether the determinations are satisfied.
Government-to-government negotiations then begin to finalize an agreement. Import restrictions go into effect when the agreement is signed, a notice is posted in the Federal Register, and the Designated List is published.
What is CPAC?
The CCPIA tasks the Cultural Property Advisory Committee (CPAC) with reviewing requests from foreign governments for CPAs and then making recommendations as to whether the statutory determinations are met.
CPAC is composed of eleven members who are appointed by the President and represent different constituencies, including the general public, the archaeological and anthropological community, the trade (i.e., collectors and dealers), and the museum community.
In making their decision, they accept public input in the form of written and oral testimony.
What types of materials do CPAs cover?
CPAs can be used to restrict the import of at-risk:
- archaeological objects: those “of cultural significance,” at least 250 years old, and “normally discovered” from excavation or exploration, and
- ethnological objects: “products of a tribal or non industrial society” and of cultural importance.
Additionally, to be covered, the export of these objects must also be restricted by the requesting country’s own laws.
The types of objects protected by an agreement are published in a document called a “Designated List,” which is made available in the Federal Register.
What don’t CPAs cover?
CPAs are not retroactive, meaning they do not cover materials that were exported from the requesting country before the agreement went into effect (even if those objects were illegally exported). They likewise do not restrict the import of objects that were legally exported. Finally, they only include the types of antiquities and artifacts that are published on the Designated List (see above).
How long do CPAs last?
A CPA lasts for only five years, but may be renewed an indefinite number of times. The renewal or extension of an agreement follows a similar process as an initial agreement and the same four determinations described above must be met again. Likewise, emergency restrictions are effective for no more than five years from the date of the State Party’s request, but may be extended for three years.
Will CPAs harm the legal trade in art and antiquities?
No. Cultural objects that left the country legally after an agreement can continue to enter the United States.
CPAs are not retroactive. Cultural objects that left a country, legally or illegally, before the agreement are not impacted. This protects collectors, dealers, auction houses, and museums from unknowingly dealing in stolen property.
Additionally, the agreements provide a platform for cooperation for diplomats, law enforcement, and those working in the arts and culture, through which both countries work to fight the illicit trade and strengthen our broader bilateral relationship.
Do CPAs give foreign governments ownership of cultural property?
No. CPAs implement import restrictions—they do not vest ownership of cultural property in any State Party, nor do they grant the United States the authority to determine who owns that cultural property. Ownership of cultural property is determined by other U.S. and foreign laws.
How do CPAs impact human rights and minority groups?
The importance of human rights, specifically international protections for minority rights, has been a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy advocacy for over two generations.
CPAs can be a powerful tool for the United States to engage with partner countries about these issues, and specifically, on the preservation of minority cultural heritage. These agreements provide a framework through which the U.S. government can encourage other countries to accept, adopt, and enforce international rules and norms with regard to cultural heritage and its intersection with human rights. CPAs also offer American advocates for minority communities abroad a mechanism to make their voices heard and advocate for needed change.
How can the public follow U.S. diplomatic progress in negotiating and adopting CPAs?
Announcements of meetings and more information on the CPA process, including a list of current agreements in effect, can be found on the U.S. Department of State’s Cultural Heritage Center website.
Before a CPAC meeting at which a new agreement or the renewal of an existing agreement is considered, members of the public may submit comments on the proposed CPA via Regulations.gov and/or request time to give testimony during a CPAC public session.