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Libya Requests US to Send Artifacts Back to War-torn Libya

June 30, 2017.  Gift to Libyan Government, Threat to U.S. Citizen Access to Art and Heritage, or Both?

STOP PRESS! The Department of State has sent a notice on July 3, 2017, the day before a Federal holiday and in the middle of a long holiday weekend. The Cultural Property Advisory Committee will review the Libyan request for an embargo on art on July 19-20. Only one week is allowed for comment. See: State Department Rushes Request for Libya Embargo, July 3, 2017.

A ramped-up request to block art from Libya from entering the United States raises clear problems of compliance with US law – and appears to be the next step in a movement to embargo Middle Eastern art from multiple countries from entry into the US. (An Egyptian art embargo was signed earlier in 2017 and others are being promoted by the Antiquities Coalition.)

By law, a request made for a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) under the Cultural Property Implementation Act (CPIA) requires that the requesting nation do its part to keep American citizens from suffering loss of access as a result of placing an embargo on its art. Although the US has the strongest laws in the world dealing with foreign nations’ art and cultural property, we still ask requesting nations to do their bit, and not make the US the world’s art-policeman, especially while they themselves are negligent. It is each U.S. citizen’s right to also have access to their and their fellow-citizen’s heritage, whether through the marketplace or in U.S. museums and cultural institutions.

The Public Summary of Libya MOU Request that has been made available is actually written by the Department of State, and “authorized” by the Libyan government. The Department does not provide copies of actual requests, which makes it impossible to know if the request itself complies with Congressional criteria.

No Central Government Control

It is important to note that this request comes from the current Government of Libya, which holds only a portion of Libyan territory at this time. Libya is divided and ruled by two competing governments and its territory is controlled by six major militia factions, and many smaller parties and entities. There is no single effective Government of Libya that controls Libyan territory.

As part of every US agreement on cultural property, the US agrees to send any art that enters the US back to the source country. This policy applies even to art that has poor prospects of surviving in conflict-ridden nations, and art from oppressed ethnic or religious minorities that have been forced out of the source country. The CPIA does not provide for return of embargoes art to anyone but a source country government.

The Request is Over Broad

The request for the imposition of U.S. import restrictions covers the entire history of the geographic region that is Libyan territory from the Paleolithic through the Ottoman Era (12,000 B.C.-1750 A.D.). and on its ethnological material dating from 1551 to 1911 A.D. That is – virtually everything – up to 1911.

The material covered would be “archaeological material in stone, metal, ceramic and clay, glass, faience, and semi-precious stone, mosaic, painting, plaster, textile, basketry, rope, bone, ivory, shell and other organics. Protection is sought for ethnological material in stone, metal, ceramic and clay, wood, bone and ivory, glass, textile, basketry and rope, leather and parchment, and writing.” That is, everything one can think of.

No Cultural Administration

The cultural administrative staff of Libya appear in the request to have been scattered and in considerable disorder. The request fails to demonstrate that there is currently a government hierarchy capable of administering cultural heritage in much of the country, even if it wished to do so. The request provides numerous examples of failure by the Libyan government to address cultural heritage issues. It notes that

  • “[A]rtifacts, which had been excavated from temples, were also stolen from the storerooms.”
  • “Museums have also been vandalized and looted by invading militias.”
  • “There are also reported thefts from museums and storerooms of documented and undocumented objects.”
  • “[A]ll of the country’s twenty-four museums are closed.”
  • Lacking government support, Department of Antiquities staff “continue to take personal responsibility for the objects housed in their institutions.”

No US Market for Illicit Artifacts

The Libyan request’s description of the U.S. market for ancient artifacts in Libyan style does not claim that any came recently from Libya or that any were not legally acquired.

The Tuareg materials and Islamic objects of the 18th and 19th century for which “protection,” i.e. embargo is sought were legally available for trade in Libya for many decades and are widely and legally available in European, Asian, and US markets. The request does not even claim that ethnographic materials were restricted in export from Libya in the past.

No Access for US Citizens, No Study, No Sharing of Excavated Materials

The request fails to meet criteria set by Congress that require that US citizens have access to Libyan culture through museum exhibitions or other venues. There is not a single traveling exhibition mentioned in the request.

Although the request acknowledges that foreign institutions and missions have done extensive archaeological work in Libya, these archaeological agreements do not allow sharing or even permanent export from Libya of any objects for study.

Based on the written request as presented by the Department of State, Libya’s recent governments have done little or nothing in the last decade to protect Libyan sites. Nor has any Libyan government made any effort to ensure that US citizens were able to access Libyan art and artifacts through traveling exhibitions, museum loans, or even through providing digital online access to art in Libya itself.

US Organizations with Middle East Ties are Promoting the Libyan Request

This request appears timed to coincide with a raft of recent presentations about the trade in looted Middle Eastern art by the Antiquities Coalition and its various partners – much of it based on discredited data. The presentations have focused on the evils of the international trade in looted art from these regions, and by wholly unsubstantiated statements that looted artifacts from the crisis areas in the Middle East have entered the US market or are being sold here. In these presentations, the value of the legal market in provenanced antiquities, especially the auction market, are used to justify claims about a supposed illicit market. In the view of the Antiquities Coalition, agreements under the CPIA with authoritarian Middle Eastern governments are seen as positive because they will end the art trade.

Timing is Short

Title: Nubian soldiers passing the Step Pyramid, Libyan Desert, Egypt , Date Created/Published: c1896. Medium: 1 photographic print on stereo card : stereograph. Repository: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-67538

The timing of the request and scheduling of a hearing before the Cultural Property Advisory Committee at the Department of State to review it on July 19-20, 2017 are concerning, because of the very short time available for review and public comment. CCP will update to include other public commentary as the review date approaches.

World War II. Tripoli, Libya. A classic Roman head, blasted from the torso, resting amid the sandbags. Digital ID: (digital file from original neg.) fsa 8d31164. • Repository: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540

Second World War. Lieutenant Milton Marx of New York City, attached to the Public Relations Office of the United States Army Ninth Air Force, does some painting in the streets of Tripoli. In civilian life Marx is a commercial artist. • Repository: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 • Digital ID: (digital file from original neg.) fsa 8d29653 .

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