March 26, 2012

US bill aims to protect looted art while on loan to US museums

Posted at 4:56 pm in Similar cases

In what can only be a backwards step, the Foreign Cultural Exchange Jurisdictional Immunity Clarification Act, H.R. 4086 aims to protect looted artefacts from seizure whilst on loan to museums in the US. There is an exclusion for items looted by the Nazis, but (notwithstanding my reservations with a single special case that ignores others of equal merit), it excludes items that were lost through forced sales or other forms of misappropriation.

It is hard to see who will benefit from such a law other than big museums, who will find it easier to secure temporary loans for exhibitions. Surely creating exemptions in the law & allowing a free flow of looted artefacts into & out of the country is not the correct way to solve the issue though?

The Hill

House to protect foreign artwork, except artwork stolen by Nazis
By Pete Kasperowicz – 03/19/12 10:02 AM ET

The House on Monday afternoon will vote on legislation aimed at making it easier for foreign governments to lend works of art to be displayed in U.S. museums, without fear of having the artwork subjected to litigation once it enters the United States. But the bill to be voted on would exempt artwork stolen by Nazi Germany from these assurances.

Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio) introduced the Foreign Cultural Exchange Jurisdictional Immunity Clarification Act, H.R. 4086, in February. Chabot says his bill is meant to clarify the relationship between two existing laws that has made some foreign governments wary of temporarily exporting artwork to the United States.

“In order to present first-class exhibitions on a consistent basis, the Cincinnati Museum Center, the Cincinnati Art Museum and other similar museums across this country depend on foreign loans,” Chabot said in February. “By enacting this legislation, we can remove a major obstacle to foreign loans and exchanges.”

Currently, the Immunity from Seizure Act (IFSA) gives the executive branch the authority to grant artwork immunity from seizure by U.S. courts, which is meant to help encourage the exchange of culturally significant objects between nations.

But Chabot says this law has been complicated by the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, which in some cases can give courts jurisdiction over foreign governments when their artwork is displayed in the United States. Chabot notes that the American Association of Museum Directors has said this has prompted some foreign governments to decide against loaning their artwork to U.S. museums.

To fix the problem, Chabot’s bill would add language to the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act clarifying that artwork loaned to the United States for display will not open them up to claims under that law.

Chabot’s bill does clarify, however, that artwork will not be protected from claims that the piece in question was taken by Nazi Germany between Jan. 30, 1933 and May 8, 1945.

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  1. Larry Rothfield said,

    03.28.12 at 5:45 pm

    A couple of caveats. First, it is entirely possible that claims might be brought that turn out to be unfounded, and that claims might be brought that are not based on assertions of looting but on assertions that the government lending the objects (i.e., Iran in the case of the Persepolis tablets) owes compensation for damages it had done to private parties and that therefore the cultural goods owned by the state should be seized and turned over to the aggrieved parties. Both of these possibilities are deterring governments from lending. Second, it is surely not merely the museums that benefit, but the public that museums serve who also benefit from the opportunity to view exhibitions that are currently not traveling to the US because of fears that artifacts might be seized. Cultural exchanges benefit us all.

  2. Matthew said,

    03.29.12 at 7:45 am

    You are right, that there are definitely problems with the current system & the way it operates – I’m just not convinced that these new proposals are necessarily the best way for tackling that problem.

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