Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Honduras MoU Renewal Attracts Comments Ahead of Tomorrow's CPAC Meeting - Inclusion of Colonial and Republican Objects in Dispute

"Please help us," pleaded Honduran archaeologist Ricardo Agurcia in written remarks submitted to the Cultural Property Advisory Committee (CPAC). He and nearly twenty others submitted remarks to CPAC in advance of the presidential advisory group's scheduled meeting beginning tomorrow in Washington, D.C.

CPAC will consider the renewal of the United States-Honduras Memorandum of Understanding (MoU), adopted under the federal Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act (CPIA), which restricts American imports of at-risk cultural property from the Central American nation. The request to renew the bilateral agreement between the two nations is rooted in Article 9 of the 1970 UNESCO Convention.

The U.S. and Honduras first entered into a bilateral agreement in 2004 after Honduras' cultural patrimony was found to be in jeopardy from pillage, particularly from looting at thousands of archaeological sites across the country. The U.S. renewed the MoU in 2009. The agreement is set to expire in 2014.

The Penn Cultural Heritage Center told CPAC this month in a published statement that "looters continue to threaten the cultural patrimony of Honduras," a sentiment shared by other archaeologists. The Penn Center specified that from 2001 through 2012 "authorities reported 304 cases of theft involving cultural goods, including artwork, manuscripts, books and monuments, as well as historical, artistic, and archaeological objects" and from 2010 through July 2012 "Honduran authorities recorded a total of 101 complaints of crimes against cultural heritage, robbery, theft and damage of artifacts and sites, including at Copán and at Mayan tombs in Petatía."

In addition to archaeological looting, comments focused attention on looting of colonial era heritage. "Especially at risk are colonial churches, which have been victims of theft or attempted theft during the present MOU period," warned the Penn Center, conceding that it was "unable to determine whether this is an area of increasing illicit trafficking in Honduras or there is simply more publicity attached to these recent thefts." The Penn Center nevertheless cautioned that "the number of instances is cause for concern," pointing to reports of thefts of religious objects at churches in Taulabé, Comayagua, Candelaria, Lempira, Santa Bárbara, Curarén, Pimienta, Cortés, and other locations.

Agurcia offered a more emphatic statement, decrying that "the pillaging of religious, colonial materials has been rampant. In the past few years even the wooden statue of the town's patron saint has robbed and newspaper reports of similar events all over the country have prolific over this same period."

The colonial fortress at Trujillo, Honduras.
CPAC's review of the MoU renewal includes a request by the government of Honduras to widen the protections afforded by current U.S. customs laws. Restrictions on imports of Colonial and Republican cultural heritage objects in jeopardy--in addition to at-risk archaeological and ethnological material dating from 2000 B.C. to 1550 A.D. covered by the current bilateral agreement--will be considered by CPAC.

But there is opposition to this widened request by collectors' advocates. Arthur Houghton, a former curator of The J. Paul Getty Museum and an original member of CPAC in the 1980's, called the broadening of the U.S.-Honduras agreement "odd in the extreme." He argued in a written comment that the CPIA "clearly requires that material to be included in any agreement between the United States and a foreign state meet the definitions of 'archaeological or ethnological.'" Houghton stated that "Honduran material of the Colonial and Republican periods meets neither of those tests," arguing that "archaeological, material must be 1) of cultural significance; 2) at least two hundred and fifty years old and ... 3) normally discovered as a result of excavation or clandestine digging, or exploration" and that "ethnological, material must be 1) the product of a tribal or nonindustrial society and ... 2) important to the cultural heritage of a people."

The Association for Art Museum Directors (AAMD) communicated reservations similar to Houghton's, although the organization expressed overall support for a five year extension of the MoU. "While the AAMD generally supports the protections sought by Honduras, the AAMD urges the Committee to avoid overly broad or ambiguous categorization and definition of subject materials." The museum directors emphasized, "There is no explanation of what is meant by 'Colonial' and 'Republican' material."  As a result, the AAMD urged CPAC members in its written comments to "take care to define the scope of 'Colonial' and 'Republican' material to be protected, using defined dates and recognized definitions." The group nonetheless questioned "whether there is a demonstrated need for such protection," asking "If the United States is not a market, how can the imposition of U.S. import restrictions, even if done in concert with others, be of 'substantial benefit in deterring pillage?'"

CPAC this week will also assess the current bilateral agreement with El Salvador, part of an interim review of the MoU adopted in 2010.

Photo credit: rafito20

This post is researched, written, and published on the blog Cultural Heritage Lawyer Rick St. Hilaire at culturalheritagelawyer.blogspot.com. Text copyrighted 2010-2013 by Ricardo A. St. Hilaire, Attorney & Counselor at Law, PLLC. Any unauthorized reproduction or retransmission of this post is prohibited. CONTACT INFORMATION: www.culturalheritagelawyer.com