Thursday, July 31, 2014

Assyria to Iberia Exhibition Highlights Legal and Public Policy Issues Surrounding Foreign Lending

The ancient Assyrian Empire and Phoenician city-states fascinate museum-goers. But when visitors view Assyria to Iberia at the Dawn of the Classical Age in New York starting this September, few will be aware of the many legal and public policy issues that surround the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibition. Two are worth highlighting.

On the legal front, the museum has secured immunity from judicial seizure of the foreign objects on temporary loan that are expected to be displayed. Given that the Met bills the showing as a landmark exhibitionthat will present“some 260 works of art on loan" that have been “brought together from some four dozen museums in 13 countries,” this immunity is important to protect the artifacts from possible legal entanglements once inside America’s borders. The U.S. State Department granted that immunity and published its decision on July 10.

Congress passed a statute in 1965 called IFSA, the Immunity from Seizure Under Judicial Process of Cultural Objects Imported for Temporary Exhibition or Display 22 USC § 2459. Lawmakers wrote the statute in order to promote the importation of fine art, encouraging foreign art lenders to feel confident that their cultural works would not be taken away as a result of any potential U.S. court action.

The statute protects objects of cultural significance intended for temporary, nonprofit exhibition. The law also prevents a civil litigant from seizing temporarily imported fine art to satisfy a judgment in a lawsuit, for example. (For a discussion of the current controversy surrounding the statute and a congressional attempt to resolve the problem, see earlier CHL posts here and here.)

The immunity given by IFSA is not automatic, which is why the Met petitioned the State Department, the agency responsible for reviewing immunity requests. The State Department granted the Met’s request because the agency found, as required by the statute, that the objects included for exhibition in Assyria to Iberia qualify as objects of cultural significance, imported pursuant to loan agreements with foreign owners or custodians, and will be displayed by the museum in the national interest.

The immunity covers the specific artifacts on loan to the Met and does not give the museum itself immunity from any possible lawsuits.

The kind of foreign lending encouraged by IFSA and exhibitions like Assyria to Iberia supports the wider policy goals associated with the foreign cultural exchange of artifacts. Not only does foreign lending of heritage objects enlighten minds and hearts, it also offers a possible solution to the problem of transnational antiquities trafficking by increasing exchanges between reputable cultural and archaeological institutions, thereby decreasing American museum accessions of undocumented artifacts from the often opaque art and antiquities market.

Assyria to Iberia also serves to support smaller cultural heritage centers like Almuñecar, Spain. Euro Weekly News reports that the Met has asked the cultural heritage department for its Apofis vase and two onyx marble vases discovered from archaeological sites to display in the New York exhibition. Olga Ruano, Councilor for Culture of the town is quoted as saying “Our cultural heritage attracts prestigious institutions, so it is our duty to protect, preserve and promote it.”

If you visit Assyria to Iberia at the Dawn of the Classical Age later this year, keep in mind the law and public policy located in the backdrop.

Photo: Alex Bruda

By Rick St. Hilaire Text copyrighted 2010-2014 by Ricardo A. St. Hilaire, Attorney & Counselor at Law, PLLC. Blog url: Any unauthorized reproduction or retransmission of this post without the express written consent of CHL is prohibited.