04 December 2016

Oppose Senate Bill 3155 which legalizes the display of looted art in the United States.

by Marc Masurovsky

Click here to voice your opposition.

If passed, Senate Bill 3155, sponsored by American museum lobbyists and art market players, is a dream come true.

S. 3155 makes it possible for an American museum or, for that matter, any institution located in the United States to borrow any object from any part of the world without fear of judicial seizure, resulting from a claim filed by a victim of cultural theft.

On paper, it all sounds innocent. If it is, how do you explain the total silence emanating from the American museum community’s lobbying arm, the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), which has not uttered a single public word in its campaign to press for passage of S.3155. The AAMD has essentially refused to engage in a public discussion about the merits of S. 3155 through Senate hearings or in the public sphere. Clearly, its sponsors in the Senate have also agreed not to solicit opinions from the public and those most likely to be affected by the passage of this bill—source nations, indigenous groups, victims of cultural theft.

S. 3155 ensures that acts of plunder, whether State-sponsored or not, against entire groups and communities, resulting in systematic looting and misappropriation of cultural assets, do not stand in the way of museums’ ability to borrow freely from art collections across the globe.

There are numerous countries which have suffered from autocratic, dictatorial, even tyrannical governments and regimes which have cost countless lives, suppressed individual freedoms and resulted in untold losses of personal property through expropriation, misappropriation, and outright theft. Many objects displaced during these events have never been returned to their rightful owners. The more desirable ones have been sold and resold on the international art market, or have entered art collections stewarded by the very governments which enabled and sanctioned these illegal confiscations and expropriations.

There are numerous archaeological sites around the world which have been illegally exploited and whose ruins have yielded untold numbers of artifacts recycled through countless intermediaries before reaching museum collections, auction houses, and private dealers in “the West”, including North America.

Indigenous peoples across the globe have been subject to continual harassment and persecution by the governments of the countries in which they reside, victimized by violence and by illegal removals of their sacred objects. These looted objects, often used for ritual practices, find their way into “Western” collections through the illicit trade, once they have been reclassified as "art."

Museums thrive on attracting visitors. To do so, they must constantly borrow beautiful, rare, objects from domestic and foreign collections and highlight them in exceptional exhibits for the public to come and enjoy. We all love to go to museums, but does that excuse their willingness to be be a party to theft and plunder?

It appears so.

Is S. 3155 necessary?

In practical terms, there is no need for S. 3155. The US Department of State has in place a system by which foreign lenders and their American counterparts can request a certificate of immunity from seizure to allow them to lend one or more objects to American institutions for the purpose of an exhibit. The State Department issues these certificates several times a week. For better and for worse, the immunity system works.

So, why does one need S. 3155? There is a political motive underlying its introduction in the Senate. For years, US museums have been unable to borrow masterpieces from Russian museums as a result of several court cases which were interpreted by the Russian government as a direct threat to their ability to lend works of art without fear of them being seized. Whether rational or not, these feelings have translated into a near-absolute freeze in Russian cultural loans to US museums.

Is the AAMD using S.3155 to signal the Russian government that, if passed, Russian museums should relax their stance on loans to the US?

The same reasoning can be applied to other governments with whom the US has had severe difficulties, like the Cuban government. Now that Fidel Castro is dead, all eyes are on that little island off the coast of Florida. The likelihood is quite high that art works confiscated from private Cuban collections will head to the United States. Again, S.3155 will make it possible for these confiscated works to be displayed and will deprive dispossessed Cuban families from being able to seek redress in US courts in order to recover their expropriated property.

The main sponsors of S.3155—Senator Orrin Hatch (Republican-Utah), and Senator Chuck Schumer (Democrat-New York)—are doing everything they can to have this bill passed before the end of 2016. So, time is of the essence to send a clear message to the Senate that this bill is unacceptable, indecent, unethical, and unnecessary.

If you agree that S. 3155 should not be passed by the US Senate, click here and voice your concern.