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Protecting Egypt’s Cultural Heritage

The recent political upheaval in Egypt is not without effect on the country’s cultural property. Reports of theft, vandalism, and looting have resulted in calls for international law enforcement to guard against illegally trafficked cultural artifacts. In the States, the agency charged with seizing illegally imported cultural property is the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol. The agency relies on various federal acts when seizing cultural property.

Under the National Stolen Property Act (NSPA), authority for seizure is granted when the item is valued at $5,000 or more, when the item is known to have been stolen, when it is covered under Egypt’s patrimony law 117, or when it is transported over the American border. This poses some significant problems. For example, an artifact may have significant value to archeologists but this may not be reflected in its market value thus preventing seizure.

Authorities using NSPA rely on Title 19, the portion of federal law that contains customs statutes, and Title 18, the criminal code that contains the NSPA. Both are used in conjunction with the McClain/Schultz doctrine, a court defined rule which considers the patrimony laws of foreign nations.

Title 19’s Cultural Property Information Act (CPIA) focuses on whether an artifact was stolen. Unlike the NSPA, the low monetary value of an article does not prevent seizure, but there are other problems. Some artifacts may have been stolen so recently that they are not inventoried or government leaders may not be inclined to report looted artifacts.

Additionally, the Archeological Resources Protection Act (ARPA) permits seizure when items are trafficked in foreign commerce in violation of state or local law. However this type of seizure may not survive a legal challenge and is not even listed in the customs’ agent handbook.

Because of the shortcomings in these rules some advocate for the adoption of additional measures. One option is an Emergency Protection of Egyptian Cultural Antiquities Act, pursuant to 19 U.S.C. § 2603 of the CPIA. The act could focus the attention on Egyptian cultural heritage at risk and meet due process requirements while permitting the seizure of cultural objects under less constrictive circumstances.

Suspected stolen, looted, or trafficked culture artifacts can be reported to the Customs Border Protection over the Internet at or by telephone at1-800-BE-ALERT.

For a more in-depth explanation visit Rick St. Hilaire’s blog.