Consequences of the Met-Italy Accord for the International Restitution of Cultural Property

By Briggs, Aaron Kyle | Chicago Journal of International Law, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

Consequences of the Met-Italy Accord for the International Restitution of Cultural Property


Briggs, Aaron Kyle, Chicago Journal of International Law


In February 2006, the Metropolitan Museum of Art ("Met") and the Italian Ministry of Culture signed the Italy-Met Euphronios Accord ("Accord"), forever changing the dynamics of the international cultural property trade.1 Although the Met purchased the Euphronios Krater ("Krater") in 1972 for $1.2 million, Met Director Phillippe de Montebello agreed to relinquish ownership of the piece to Italy, where the object was originally found, in exchange for long-term loans of works of equal value and an absolution of liability for the illegal excavation and export of the Krater.2 This unprecedented resolution to a decades-old international property dispute has the potential to foster a new spirit of cooperation between museums and source nations, spawn stricter museum acquisition and loan policies, reduce the demand for illicit cultural property, and permanently alter the balance of power in the international cultural property debate.

Since the Accord was signed in February of 2006, change has already begun with the issuance of new museum guidelines3 and increased awareness of the problem in countries with large collections of cultural property, specifically Egypt, Peru, and Italy.4 However, is the Accord a replicable model whereby other nations and museums can amicably resolve disputes without litigation? If not, is it still capable of generating change in the art world? This Comment will demonstrate that given the circumstances of the Accord, the model is unlikely to be perfectly replicated by other nations and museums. Nevertheless, it still has the potential to significantly alter the way in which cultural property disputes are resolved.

This Comment will proceed in four parts. The first section will provide a contextual overview of the international art market, the cultural property debate, and the culture of acquisition to show what is at stake and why these issues are important. The second section will examine the legal framework, including the current international conventions, and the US cultural property regime. This section will also expound upon the legal issues surrounding claims by source nations for restitution from American institutions. The third section will detail the Italian cultural property regime, the circumstances surrounding the Krater, and the Accord, which form a basis for the Italian Model ("Model"). The fourth section will assess whether the Model is replicable, and separately, its potential impact on the international art market. The final section will conclude by suggesting that the Model may initiate and form the basis of a dialogue between museums and source nations.

I. THE CONTEXT

Cultural property, as defined by the UNESCO5 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property ("UNESCO Convention"), is "property which, on religious or secular grounds, is specifically designated by each State as being of importance for archaeology, prehistory, history, literature, art or science" and fits within certain categories.6 While the term "cultural property" includes a wide purview of objects, the focus of this Comment will be on the international trade in antiquities, or objects of significant cultural importance more than one hundred years old.

A. THE ANTIQUITIES TRADE

The global trade in antiquities represents a small portion of the entire art market with sales between one-hundred million and two-hundred million dollars annually.7 It is important to distinguish between the licit and illicit trades. In the licit trade, generally, the objects are discovered in archaeologically rich nations such as Italy, Greece, and Turkey through official excavations of ancient sites. Then either prior to the enactment of a national ownership law or afterwards, with the state's consent (usually via an export certificate), they are sold through public auction houses like Sotheby's and Christie's or private dealers. …

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