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I attended a conference a week or so ago, hosted by the Committee for Cultural Policy, a “non-profit organization that informs the public on policies and laws that affect the international movement of cultural property.” Basically, the discussion was about the White Paper published by the Committee in 2013 titled, “A Proposal to Reform Law and Policy Relating to the International Exchange of Cultural Policy”.

It is, essentially, “a review of policy from a museum and collector perspective”. I expected to be somewhat bored as their focus was largely on antiquities, a forum that has garnered more than its fair share of bad publicity with tomb robbers, illegal purchases and foreign government intrusions into museums demanding the return of stolen goods. It was, in fact, intriguing and informative on the way in which governments make and enforce rules. Of course, this applies to the current debate about ivory which, at the moment seems like a foregone conclusion that it will be banned. In essence, it is clear that government bodies inform themselves about issues by consulting certain groups.

The primary source as regards antiquities has been, apparently, archaeologists. Archaeologists have a point of view that pieces should remain in the ground and be excavated by archaeologists in order to learn the most from a particular object or group of objects. This has validity, but not always, since pieces were transported everywhere—a known fact—and that their sites often have little or nothing to do with an object. The issues were not just how the government has informed themselves to create law, but also how it has been carried out.

This is, of course, the most dangerous gray area of all since foreign governments will try very hard to shame countries into returning items they feel are theirs. The Rosetta Stone and the Elgin Marbles both come to mind, but there are a host of other things, some of which have been returned because the political cast on returning an item is better than standing firm and resisting. Furthermore, there is a double indemnity to the law in that there are overlapping statutes which, by design, create ambiguity and give prosecutors and judges greater latitude of interpretation.

Wrapped up altogether, it appears that museums, collectors and dealers are under siege from not only foreign governments, but also from our own government and that the rationale guiding this policy is either one sided and/or entirely political. Furthermore, it is not even party related, it is bureaucracy driven.

Is this any way to run a government?