Saturday, February 5, 2011

Reclaiming Trafficked Egyptian Cultural Objects: US Seizure Laws and How to Make a Report to Customs and Border Protection

The Egyptian people have displayed admirable concern for cultural heritage by protecting museums and archaeological sites while courageously expressing their hope for self-determination. It is a credit to the people that the intact Egyptian Museum remains a centerpiece of news images coming from Tahrir Square.

There are naturally reports of theft, vandalism, and looting during this time of upheaval, prompting calls to international law enforcement to remain on the lookout for Egyptian antiquities illegally trafficked from the country.

Some have asked how United States authorities can seize Egyptian antiquities spotted crossing the American border. Others have asked how to report suspected illegal activity. Some answers are briefly provided here.

CBP Officer Herbert Kercado stands near
an illegally imported Egyptian sarcophagus
he discovered in Miami, Florida.
Photo courtesy CBP, March 2010.
US Customs and Border Protection (CPB) of the Department of Homeland Security is the front-line agency primarily responsible for the initial detention of contraband that arrives on American soil. Its officers, and other agents of Homeland Security--such as Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers and ICE Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) officers--rely on federal rules that authorize the seizure of illegally imported cultural property. Some of these rules are described here.  Meanwhile, reports regarding import/export violations can be made to CPB as described below.

NSPA Seizure
Customs officers have authority to seize a stolen Egyptian antiquity under the National Stolen Property Act (NSPA) when:
• it is valued at $5000 or more,
• is known to have been stolen,
• is covered by Egypt’s patrimony Law No. 117 of 1983, amended by Law No. 3 of 2010, and
• is transported over the American border.

Under this scenario, authorities would rely on Titles 19 and 18 of the federal code in conjunction with the McClain/Schultz doctrine. Title 19 is the portion of federal law that contains the customs statutes, in particular the Tariff Act of 1930, 19 U.S.C. §1595a(c)(1)(A). Title 18 contains the criminal code, which includes the National Stolen Property Act (NSPA), 18 U.S.C. §2314. The McClain/Schultz doctrine, meanwhile, is a court defined rule that takes into account a foreign nation’s patrimony law. United States .v Schultz, 333 F.3d 393 (2nd Cir. 2003).

By way of explanation, the third element of the NSPA seizure rule depends on Egypt having a strong patrimony law. A federal court in the case of United States v. Schultz determined that Egyptian Law on the Protection of Antiquities (Law 117) is a patrimony law that asserts Egyptian public ownership of antiquities—as of 1983—and restricts private possession or ownership of cultural property. Law 117 was later strengthened by Law 3 in 2010, and this revision would not likely affect the Schultz court's conclusion.

There may also be a claim of forfeiture made under 18 U.S.C. § 981, applying to property “derived from proceeds traceable to a violation of” a statute such as the NSPA.

Stolen Egyptian artifacts may be seized by customs pursuant to an NSPA seizure, but artifacts can slip by. For example, an object that is extremely valuable to archaeologists as evidence of Egyptian’s history may be worth less than $5000, and determining whether an object is “stolen” can present a challenge.

CPIA Seizure
Other seizure authority may be found in Title 19’s Cultural Property Implementation Act (CPIA). The CPIA states that “[n]o article of cultural property documented as appertaining to the inventory of a museum or religious or secular public monument or similar institution . . . which is stolen from such institution [after April 12, 1983] . . . may be imported into the United States.” 19 U.S.C. §2607. Items that were inventoried and then stolen from Egyptian museums, churches, monuments, etc. may therefore be seized and forfeited by customs officials under a CPIA seizure. 19 U.S. C. §2609. (Note that there may be a legal argument against this reasoning, however.)

A CPIA seizure of this kind is different from an NSPA seizure. The customs officer does not have to worry about whether an object is valued at $5000, for instance. The CPIA’s focus is on whether a cultural object is stolen from an institution or monument, whether it is part of a documented inventory, and whether it is considered to be cultural property. Cultural property is broadly defined as “property which, on religious or secular grounds, is specifically designated by each State [Party to the Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property 1970] as being of importance for archaeology, prehistory, history, literature, art or science . . . .” Cultural property can include anything described in Article 1 of the 1970 UNESCO Convention, including rare fauna, paleontological artifacts, archaeological objects, dismembered historical monuments, and more. 19 U.S.C. §2601.

There are problems with CPIA seizures. For instance, cultural property that is freshly looted from the ground is not part of a documented inventory. Objects secretly dug up from Saqqara, Abusir, or other historic site in Egypt could slip through these seizure rules. Additionally, Egyptian government leaders might be reluctant to declare that thieves stole artifacts from their institutions or sites for political or security reasons, and US customs officials would not be expected enforce federal law under these circumstances.

ARPA Seizure
There is an argument to be made that seizure of Egyptian antiquities could also be made under the Archaeological Resources Protection Act (ARPA). Under 16 U.S.C. §470ee(c) and criminal seizure rules, archaeological resources could be seized if they were trafficked in foreign commerce in violation of state or local law. But a seizure of Egyptian antiquities under this statute can be complicated and perhaps legally uncertain. Indeed, it should be noted that this type of seizure is not listed as an option in customs agents’ Seized Asset Management and Enforcement Procedures Handbook. But it has been used successfully in the past, and ARPA search warrant procedures are taught at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center. §470ee(c) was once used to seize and forfeit Etruscan pottery in NY that violated NY’s receiving stolen property law, for example.

Complementary Legislation
Existing cultural property seizure rules may not be enough to secure all illicit Egyptian cultural artifacts potentially coming across the border. If there is critical concern that cultural objects from Egyptian museums or archaeological sites have been stolen or looted, and if there is further concern that these objects are being trafficked outside Egypt, then US lawmakers should seriously contemplate adopting additional measures of protection. The passage of an Emergency Protection of Egyptian Cultural Antiquities Act, enacted pursuant to 19 U.S.C. § 2603 of the CPIA, could prove useful to a determined effort designed to tackle the problem. Such a law could more clearly focus the attention of law enforcement and the public on Egyptian cultural heritage at risk. It could also provide due process requirements while permitting the seizure of Egyptian cultural objects regardless of whether they were known to have been stolen from a cultural institution, looted from the ground, or had any monetary value.

Reporting Illegal Egyptian Cultural Property Imports
If you suspect that a cultural object from Egypt has been looted, stolen, or trafficked you should report it to US Customs and Border Protection. It is easy over the internet. Just fill out the secure form at You can also make a report by telephone by calling 1-800-BE-ALERT.

Understanding Federal Law Enforcement's Heritage Protection Efforts
The Archaeoligical Institute of America in August 2010 posted a description of how federal law enforcement approaches heritage protection. It describes in greater detail the interaction between the various laws described here and the federal agencies that enforce them. Read it at