Thursday 4 February 2016

Are US Customs officials issued with crystal balls?

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee in the United States has passed a bill (HR 1493) that is designed to "protect and preserve international cultural property at risk due to political instability, armed conflict, or natural or other disasters, and for other purposes". The bill is largely in response to UN resolution 2199 (2015) which seeks to prevent trade in archaeological and historical artefacts removed from Iraq since 6 August 1990 and from Syria since 15 March 2011, thus providing a disincentive to loot in those countries.

I note that Peter Tompa, lobbyist for the American coin trade, has posed an apparent conundrum on his blog:
"The major remaining concern deals with how such restrictions will be implemented.  Will the State Department and US Customs revert to standard operating procedure and restrict items solely based on them being of a type manufactured in Syria hundreds or thousands of years ago? Or will the governing UN Resolution and statutory intent be honored so that restrictions only apply to artifacts illegally removed from Syria after the start of its civil war?"
I'll pose another set of questions to Peter Tompa: how does he expect officials in the State Department and US Customs to be able to distinguish between artefacts that have been "illegally removed from Syria after the start of its civil war" and those that were removed before it? Is he under the impression that officials in the State Department and US Customs are issued with magic crystal balls as part of their standard equipment?

Or, despite his earlier reluctance to acknowledge the obvious solution regarding restrictions on Egyptian antiquities, will he finally be urging his trade clients to recognise common sense this time and ensure that they only import and deal in Syrian antiquities with at least some kind of documentation to show the items were out of Syria long before March 2011? (It is wise to bear in mind that the old principle of "innocent until proven guilty" is not implemented in civil cases in quite the same way as it is in criminal ones.)

Royal advisers and government officials may still possess all sorts of powers but I think even Peter Tompa will have to accept that their powers of divination have been severely curtailed since the days of Merlin.

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