Thursday, July 31, 2014

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

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

On the legal front, the museum secured immunity from judicial seizure of the objects on temporary loan.

The Met bills the show as a landmark exhibition," which will present "some 260 works of art on loan" that have been “brought together from some four dozen museums in 13 countries.” That's why this immunity is important: it protects the artifacts from potential legal entanglements when they are inside America’s borders.

The U.S. State Department published its decision to grant immunity 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 to promote imports of fine art, making foreign art lenders feel confident that their cultural works would not be taken away as a result of any 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 that might satisfy a judgment in a lawsuit.

(For a discussion of the current controversy surrounding the IFSA 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. That is the federal agency responsible for reviewing immunity requests. The State Department granted the Met’s request because the agency found--as required by the statute--that (1) the objects included in Assyria to Iberia qualify as objects of cultural significance, (2) they were imported pursuant to loan agreements with foreign owners or custodians, and (3) will be displayed by a museum in the national interest.

The immunity covers the specific artifacts on loan to the Met; it does not give the institution itself immunity from possible lawsuits.

The kind of foreign lending encouraged by IFSA and by exhibitions like Assyria to Iberia support the wider policy goals associated with cultural exchanges of artifacts. Foreign lending of heritage objects enlightens minds and hearts. Foreign lending 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.

On the public policy front, Assyria to Iberia serves to support smaller cultural heritage centers like Almuñecar, Spain. Euro Weekly News reported that the Met asked the cultural heritage department for its Apofis vase and two onyx marble vases that were discovered from nearby archaeological sites. Olga Ruano, Councilor for Culture of the town was 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 the law and public policy issues in mind, which form 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.