Cultural Property: Fall 2018

This article includes several interesting and knowledgeable sources of up to date cultural property news. Click the links for further inquiries toward a specific story. We hope you will subscribe to the Cultural Policy Newsletter at:

New Import Requirements for Ancient & Ethnographic Art

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There are changes under the Harmonized Tariff Schedule of the United States (2018) Revision 6, Annotated for Statistical Reporting Purposes that have implications for importers of ethnographic and archaeological objects as well as coin collectors. The new import reporting requirements went into effect on July 1st.

“Archaeological pieces” are now reported separately from “ethnographic pieces” and both of those are reported separately from “historical pieces”. Statistical notes 1 and 2 further define the ethnographic and archaeological categories and detail how components of collections should be reported.

CPAC – Building A Wall Against Art

The art world is dominated today by stories about spectacular multi-million dollar sales of contemporary artworks at shows and auction houses. Yet the market for ancient and ethnographic artworks has no such lofty expectations. There are far fewer important ancient artworks offered at auction in the US than just a decade ago, and there are fewer foreign exhibitors (or even American galleries) willing to show at major antique fairs in New York.

Already, US authorities’ aggressive seizures of artworks from long-held collections and the unprecedented number of prosecutions based upon foreign laws that nationalize virtually all antique artworks have made art dealers, collectors, and museums hyper-cautious. These enforcement actions threaten to end the once-dominant New York market in global antique and tribal art.

US Monuments and the Southwestern Cultural Landscape

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“The Hopi footprints and clouds are part of a living, sacred landscape that nourishes and sustains Hopi identity. This landscape is steeped in cultural values and maintained through oral traditions, songs, ceremonial dances, pilgrimages, and stewardship.”

Letter from The Hopi Tribe to President Barak Obama and Utah Senators and Congressmen, dated September 30, 2014.

Most reporting on the current administration’s reductions in the size of major Southwestern monuments center on the collision between energy and mineral developers on one side and archaeologists, environmentalists, and native groups on the other.

New York District Attorney Goes After Art Collections

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Over the last few months, headline seizures of artworks from well-known private and public art collections dating back twenty, fifty, and even seventy years have raised questions about the methods of the Manhattan District Attorney’s office. In January, warrants for artworks with an exhibition and ownership history going back to 1984 were also served on a major antiquities gallery in New York. The recent seizures are based on foreign ownership laws nationalizing artworks or on theft claims that were not raised by foreign governments until they were contacted by New York authorities. The identifications of the artworks as ‘stolen property’ were made from secret files unavailable to the public. And the threatened penalties – up to 25 years’ imprisonment – are based on a NY law intended to curb illegal trade in stolen goods.

Federal prosecutors have not been involved (although Homeland Security has taken part in raids on homes and galleries), even though the issues are international, and the artworks are all claimed to be looted or stolen from foreign countries decades ago. Instead, a newly formed antiquities trafficking bureau at the office of the District Attorney of New York County is aggressively pursuing these ‘antique’ cases.

Art Dealer Program Brings Over 100 Artifacts Back to Tribes

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ATADA, the largest US professional organization of art dealers specializing in Native American and international tribal art, has returned over 100 ceremonial artifacts to Southwestern Indian tribes. Today’s announcement celebrates the phenomenal success of ATADA’s Voluntary Returns Program, and the work of its founder, ATADA Board member Robert Gallegos, who has spearheaded the program since 2016.

The ATADA Voluntary Returns Program is a community-based initiative designed to bring sacred and highly valued ceremonial objects in current use to Native American tribes. Returns take place through a consultative process; ATADA representatives work directly with tribal community and spiritual leaders. The program evolved through the recognition by art dealers and private collectors that certain objects, although legal to own, had great importance to tribal communities, and that their return could invigorate and enhance tribal community life.

Longstanding Federal Policy Threatened by Indian Art Law


At the end of 2017, the Senate Indian Affairs Committee sent nine bills to the Senate floor for passage – all passed with Unanimous Consent. The Safeguard Tribal Objects of Patrimony Act, S. 1400, known as the STOP Act, was NOT among them. It appears that a number of Senators on the Indian Affairs Committee heeded the questions raised by ATADA, CCP, the Global Heritage Alliance, and other organizations. The groups variously raised concerns about the constitutionality of provisions forbidding trade in unspecified objects, the negative economic consequences for Southwestern states and the harm to museums and private collectors by making it federal policy to return all Native American objects to tribes.

The version of the STOP Act introduced in 2017 remains before the Senate Indian Affairs Committee through the second, 2018 session of the 115th Congress. There have been no changes to the bill since its introduction on June 21, 2017. (A 2016 bill of identical title but somewhat different intent was introduced in 2016 but died in committee at the end of the 114th Congress.)

Peabody-Essex Artifacts Go Back to Tribes

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Twenty-seven years after passage of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), neither the 210 year-old Andover Newton Theological School (ANTS) nor the Peabody Essex Museum, which housed the ANTS collection of 1,100 Native American artifacts for over seventy years, had cataloged the collection under NAGPRA or notified possible tribal claimants.

According to Peabody Essex director, Dan Monroe, when he heard that the theological school’s board had voted to withdraw eighty items from the museum and sell them, he stepped up to begin the compliance process by notifying hundreds of tribes across the country about the collection. Before that time, according to Monroe, who previously served two terms on the NAGPRA Review Committee, the Peabody Essex Museum had not acted because it did not own the collection, but only stored it for ANTS. ANTS announced in September that they would transfer ownership of their entire collection to the Peabody Essex museum, which will continue the NAGPRA repatriation process.

Salmonella May Have Caused Millions of Aztec Deaths

Between 1520 CE and 1581 CE, three deadly epidemics wiped out an estimated 80% of the indigenous population of the Valley of Mexico. The first epidemic from 1520-1521 was clearly identified as smallpox at the time of the conquest. It took the lives of up to 8 million Aztec people, who had no resistance to the disease. The virulence and rapid spread of smallpox seriously weakened the Aztecs, and was probably a deciding factor in the Spanish conquest of Tenochtitlan.

A second epidemic, from 1545 to 1550, killed an estimated 15 million people. It was called cocoliztli by the Aztecs, a Nahuatl word meaning “pest” or “pestilence.” Over the course of three to four days, victims of the illness succumbed to a horrific set of symptoms that included heavy bleeding from the nose, eyes and mouth as well as fever and dysentery.

Maori Mokomokai to Return to New Zealand

The Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum of World Cultures in Cologne, Germany announced that it would return a mokomokai – a Maori tattooed preserved head – to the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa – as part of Germany’s 15-year plan to return indigenous cultural property back to its original owners. The head had been in the museum’s collection for over 110 years. The museum’s director originally procured it in 1908 from a London dealer.

Maori mokomokai have both a sacred and sordid history. In pre-colonial Maori culture ceremonial facial tattooing, called “moko”, was done for chiefs and high-ranking members of the community as a way to indicate status and to mark the completion of rites of passage. When one of these individuals died, their head was removed, preserved and lovingly stored in an ornate box to be brought out and revered during ceremonial occasions and family celebrations.

Rapa Nui Claims British Museum’s Moai Sculpture

The Rapa Nui, people indigenous to Easter Island, have asked the British government to return one of the British Museum’s most viewed and treasured objects – the iconic stone moai statue called Hoa Hakananai’a. Moai, the giant stone monolithic figures representing ancestors and powerful chieftains, are synonymous with Rapa Nui, as Easter Island is now known.