The current policy of seizure and return does not go far enough. To seize a stolen or smuggled artifact at the American border and return it to its country of origin only serves to repatriate the object. Its confiscation and return does little to deter antiquities trafficking since there is minimal consequence to the perpetrators or accomplices. Building legal cases that lead to arrests and prosecutions would provide both specific deterrence and general deterrence.
The seize and return policy maintained by Department of Homeland Security (DHS) recently came into public view when Customs and Border Protection (CPB) and DHS investigators seized two Chinese artifacts illegally crossing America's border at Newark Liberty International Airport around March 3. Eight days later DHS announced the return of fourteen cultural objects to China, many obtained as a result of an enforcement initiative titled Operation Great Wall. The objects repatriated apparently included one of the artifacts seized at Newark Airport, specifically a Tang Dynasty horse. At least four other Chinese cultural objects that were seized in the New York metropolitan area over the past year were returned to China as well.
Typically when law enforcement officials seize the fruits of a crime or contraband they secure the evidence in anticipation of a prosecution. The return of the Tang Dynasty horse sculpture only a few days after federal officials seized it illustrates how smuggled cultural objects are not treated as criminal case evidence. That is to be expected when the primary mission of DHS is to seize and return, not to investigate and prosecute.
US Customs Director Robert Perez articulated this seize and return policy, declaring that federal authorities are "dedicated to intercepting [cultural] items and ensuring their safe return to their rightful owners." DHS’s news release about the repatriation of Chinese artifacts supports this view, highlighting that “2,300 artifacts have been returned to 18 countries since 2007.” While DHS touts the number of seizures and returns of cultural property, its press statement does not boast of any prosecutions or convictions against looters, smugglers, fences, or receivers of illegally stolen or trafficked cultural heritage.
Combating crimes against cultural heritage requires authorities to investigate and prosecute trafficking rings. Effective law enforcement is characterized by thoughtful investigation, careful handling of physical evidence, and assembly of evidence for review and use by prosecutors. While seizing and repatriating illegally smuggled artifacts serves some purpose to curb antiquities trafficking, federal officials cannot be credited with performing a thorough job if this remains the sole accomplishment.
Immigrations and Customs Enforcement investigators and Customs and Border Protection agents are skilled law enforcement officers who are capable of combating antiquities trafficking effectively. We need to call on DHS policymakers to directly engage illegal antiquities networks by adopting a policy of investigation and prosecution that enhances the existing policy of seizure and repatriation.