The War on Antiquities: United States Law and Foreign Cultural Property

Notre Dame Law Review, Vol. 84, No. 4, 2009

39 Pages Posted: 20 Feb 2009 Last revised: 23 Jun 2009

Date Written: February 19, 2009


The use of the National Stolen Property Act and Archaeological Resources Protection Act as mechanisms to protect cultural property taken from a foreign state through prosecution of individuals who buy, sell, and otherwise deal in such property is in direct tension with the Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act ("CPIA"), a statute enacted in accordance with an international treaty to which the United States is a party. This Note explores how criminal liability under United States law for museum officials and others who acquire art, archaeological materials, and especially antiquities, originating in foreign nations conflicts with CPIA's treatment of foreign cultural property. Part I discusses the principle of protection of cultural property in international law and the manifestation of this principle in the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization's 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property ("1970 UNESCO Convention"). Part II examines the 1970 UNESCO Convention's influence on United States civil law and policy regarding foreign cultural property, and on the acquisitions policies of international and domestic museums. Part III discusses criminal penalties under both the National Stolen Property Act and the Archaeological Resources Protection Act for those who knowingly acquire stolen foreign cultural property. Part IV analyzes the conflict between policies on foreign cultural property followed by the United States and domestic museums and the application of criminal penalties in art-trafficking cases. In addition, this Part explores the consequences of the conflict for both the United States and individuals, and suggests resolutions to the conflict through law. Finally, Part V concludes that in order for the United States to fulfill its obligation under the 1970 UNESCO Convention, it must stop conducting a war on antiquities-and those who acquire them.

Keywords: Cultural Property Implementation Act, CPIA, Archaeological Resources Protection Act, ARPA, National Stolen Property Act, NSPA, 1970 UNESCO Convention, international art law, antiquities, archaeological materials, art, criminal law

Suggested Citation

Vitale, Katherine D., The War on Antiquities: United States Law and Foreign Cultural Property (February 19, 2009). Notre Dame Law Review, Vol. 84, No. 4, 2009. Available at SSRN:

Katherine D. Vitale (Contact Author)

Notre Dame Law School ( email )

Notre Dame, IN

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