Ayla Jean Yackley - An agreement between Turkey and the United States to combat the illicit trade in antiquities and other cultural property has divided historians and preservationists over whether the accord will curb smuggling or undermine minority heritage that faces neglect or worse.
A memorandum of understanding signed last month imposes US import restrictions on archaeological objects 250 years or older that the Turkish government has not licenced to leave the country. The aim is “to reduce the incentive for pillage of irreplaceable archaeological and ethnological material representing Turkey’s cultural heritage,” according to the agreement, which becomes binding once the governments notify each other that their procedures for enforcement are ready.
The US is considered the second-biggest destination after Europe for illegally sourced antiquities, a criminal industry estimated to be worth as much as $6bn, although hard figures are scarce. The US State Department has signed bilateral agreements with a host of countries to stem the trade and bolster a Unesco convention from 1970 to which both Turkey and the United States belong.
“For the [Unesco] treaty to have domestic effect under American law, an MOU is needed,” says Tess Davis, executive director at the Antiquities Coalition, which supported the agreement. “US import restrictions can deal a major blow against the global black market in looted Turkish antiquities.”
The agreement arrives in response “to looting on a grand scale” in Turkey over the last decade or so, says Omur Harmansah, an archaeologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago who directs an archaeological survey project in central Turkey and wrote a letter in support of the memorandum. “The only way to stop this is to limit the circulation of antiquities and cut down the antiquities market, which is what this agreement does.”
The accord also expands cultural exchanges between the two countries, which Harmansah says could encourage more travelling exhibitions or long-term loans between US and Turkish museums. The agreement could also ease challenges for American archaeologists who face bureaucratic hurdles in leading excavations, observers say.
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