October 8, 2020

Nikita Lalwani’s “State of the Art: How Cultural Property Became a National-Security Priority”

Recent Yale Law School graduate (JD), Nikita Lalwani, has published a thoughtful article, “State of the Art: How Cultural Property Became a National-Security Priority,” in the Yale Law Journal Forum (July 2020). Surprisingly, she does not reference Erik Nemeth’s book Cultural Security (2014) which deals at length with the same topic. Lalwani discusses how cultural artifacts increasingly play a role in U.S. foreign policy, and national security interests in particular. She suggests that the U.S. Government should more aggressively support cultural property repatriation efforts by burdening U.S. importers with the responsibility to establish that all cultural artifacts they attempt to import were exported legally, according to the source countries’ governments.

I agree that the protection and movement of cultural artifacts have become increasingly significant for U.S. foreign policy, but I suspect this solicitude is grounded more in interest to maintain or establish positive economic and diplomatic relations with source countries rather than concern for preservation of these artifacts in their find spots/nations. Many source nations have untold numbers of unexcavated antiquities whose creators are no more culturally or ethnically related to those now inhabiting the land in which they lie than is the Native American who created an arrowhead to a current resident of a New England town who finds it. Lalwani does not discuss the arguably positive aspects of the (arguably) illicit antiquities market. Citizens of source countries might prefer to have a higher standard of living through the sale of cultural artifacts rather than to have them used by high-level government officials as props for jingoist sentiment. Nor does she look critically at the motivations of individuals like Matthew Bogdanos who, in his capacity as an Assistant District Attorney in New York, has carried out legally questionable raids on the homes of antiquities collectors like Michael Steinhardt.