In a mostly unnoticed filing with the U.S. government, the Association of Art Museum Directors has expressed frustration with failure to curtail the looting of antiquities in El Salvador and called for exploration of new options to contain it. They include setting up a legitimate market, which “should be taxed and the proceeds of that tax should be used to protect cultural sites and to encourage related employment by the local populations and the scientific exploration, storage and conservation of objects from those sites.”
Its statement, filed before the U.S. State Department’s Cultural Property Advisory Committee met early this month to consider the renewal of a Memorandum of Understanding on the “Imposition of Import Restrictions on Certain Categories of Archaeological Material from the Prehispanic Cultures of the Republic of El Salvador,” argued that the agreement was ineffectual and should not be renewed: “Looting does not appear to have been significantly curtailed even after more than 27 years of United States import restrictions.”
It added: “The time has come for the Committee to explore new ways, within the confines of the CPIA, to render real assistance to countries like El Salvador.”
Christine Anagnos, AAMD’s executive director, said that the Association has always acknowledged the value of licit markets. She also said that “every country is different” and that the association looks at the issue on “a case-by-case basis.”
Nonetheless, the tone of the statement seemed very unusual and a step away from its past rhetoric on the antiquities trade.
The AAMD has some stern things to say about El Salvador, for example, which had asked the U.S. to renew the MoU:
“…EL SALVADOR’S TUMULTUOUS HISTORY HAS MANY EXAMPLES OF THE INABILITY OR FAILURE TO PROTECT CULTURAL PROPERTY... UNFORTUNATELY, WHILE IN THE PAST, THE LACK OF AN EFFECTIVE GOVERNMENT COULD BE BLAMED FOR LOOTING, TODAY A CENTRALIZED AND ECONOMICALLY MOTIVATED GOVERNMENT IS ALSO A PROBLEM…”
“…GIVEN THE SIGNIFICANT INVOLVEMENT OF THE GOVERNMENT IN DEVELOPMENT ACTIVITIES THAT THREATEN SITES (SEE SECTION III(B)(1) ABOVE), ONE MUST ASK WHETHER EL SALVADOR IS MEETING ITS BURDEN TO TAKE MEASURES TO PROTECT ITS CULTURAL PROPERTY….”
The statement also said the U.S. was not to blame for illicit trade: “…As far as the AAMD can determine, there is no significant legitimate market for El Salvadorian archaeological material in the United States. There may be an illegitimate market, although even that is questionable…”
And, for possibly the first time, it shifted some blame to new markets, specifically the Middle East and China, and challenged the Committee to “examine critically where the market exists.”
The statement also cited the ineffectual or nonexistent “restrictions” in place in Mexico, the European Union and the UNESCO Convention. As a result, it concluded, “it is time for the Committee to rethink the MOU with El Salvador…” rather than simply renew.
You can read the AAMD's full statement here.
Judith H. Dobrzynski