Intractable Problems and Modest Solutions: The Illicit Antiquities Trade between the United States and Mexico

By Dearman, Michael | Houston Journal of International Law, Spring 2019 | Go to article overview

Intractable Problems and Modest Solutions: The Illicit Antiquities Trade between the United States and Mexico


Dearman, Michael, Houston Journal of International Law


I. INTRODUCTION  II. BACKGROUND        A.   International Law             1.   UNESCO Convention and the Adoption by the                  United States             2.   Treaty of Cooperation Between the United                  States and Mexico (1970)        B.   Mexican Law         C.   Other United States Statutes             1.   Pre-Columbian Antiquities Act of 1972         D.   Case Law             1.   Cases Applying the National Stolen Property                  Act                  a.   United States v. Hollinshead                  b.   United States v. McClain                  c.   Government of Peru v. Johnson                  d.   United States v. Schultz              2. Replevin Claims                  a.   Autocephalous Greek Orthodox Church of                       Cyprus v. Goldberg                  b.   Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation v.                       Lubell  III. ANALYSIS        A.   Current Knowledge of Trafficking Networks in the             United States and Mexico         B.   Policy Goals             1.   Mexico and Stolen Antiquities: Poverty,                  Trafficking, and Corruption                  a.   Law Enforcement?                  b.   Education?              2.   The United States Market: Dealers and                  Museums                  a.   Provenance                  b.   The State of the Law  IV. CONCLUSION 

I. INTRODUCTION

On July 5, 2017, the United States filed a civil complaint against Hobby Lobby for the forfeiture of thousands of ancient artifacts illegally smuggled into the United States. (1) The artifacts originated in the Middle East, in modern-day Iraq, and were smuggled through several countries (namely, the United Arab Emirates and Israel) before ultimately arriving to the end-buyers in the United States. (2) These artifacts--consisting of cylinder seals, clay bullae, and cuneiform tablets and bricks--were shipped in packages labelled "tile samples." (3) The artifacts had highly suspicious provenance, and Hobby Lobby ignored the risk that the items had been looted from war-torn Iraq. (4) Ultimately, U.S. Customs and Border Protection seized the artifacts, and the Federal District Court in the Eastern District of New York found for the United States, resulting in a $3 million fine of Hobby Lobby and a requirement that the company submit reports on any additional cultural property acquisitions. (5)

The Hobby Lobby incident is the latest iteration of an on-going crisis of cultural property theft, wherein antiquities are looted from source countries and transported through clandestine means to ultimately be sold to collectors and museums in wealthy market countries. (6) Close attention has been paid to destabilized regions in Iraq and Syria--both antiquities-rich and in the middle of civil wars--because of the persistent confluence of conflict and looting. (7)

The United States was one of the first market countries to join in the international efforts to limit the illicit antiquities trade, even as other market countries, like Great Britain and Germany, resisted the international efforts of source countries. (8) The United States' attention to the serious issue began, not with the Middle East, but with the United States' southern neighbor, Mexico, in the 1970s. (9) With nearly half a century of efforts to inhibit the illicit antiquities trade between the U.S. and Mexico, not to mention several other Latin American countries, U.S.--Mexico policy needs an assessment as to whether current laws, regulations, and enforcement structures are working and how they might be altered to better serve shared policy goals. (10) Because only a fraction of Mexico's cultural antiquities is recovered, though, the current relationship likely needs legal and policy reworking. (11) This comment argues that the law focuses primarily on repatriation of antiquities and does not do enough to control demand by altering the way in which museums and collectors ultimately purchase antiquities. …

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