(This is an abstract and information sheet prepared for the Asian Studies Development Program's annual meeting in Baltimore, March 1998. It was presented in a somewhat different form for the Center for Asian-Pacific Economic Cooperation at George Mason University inApril of 1999.)


Who owns the past? This is a fundamental question which is addressed in a growing body of international law. During last summer’s ASDP-sponsored study tour of China’s Silk Road [1997], the participants learned about the predations of foreign archeologists at China’s Buddhist sites on behalf of western museums at the turn of the century. While most of us are aware of the debates concerning the Parthenon sculptures in the British Museum, the Elgin Marbles, there is less general awareness of similar issues concerning the cultural heritage of East Asia.

Since 1970 UNESCO has played an active role focusing international attention the stewardship and preservation of cultural property. This is now a rapidly evolving area of international law, involving the intertwined issues of preservation, museum display, private and public collecting, smuggling, war damage, imperialism and repatriation. The major international treaties include the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, the 1970 UNESCO Convention on prohibiting the trade in illicitly-obtained cultural property, and the 1995 Unidroit Convention on the repatriation of cultural objects. In 1972 the World Heritage List was set up to identify and preserve the world’s most crucial cultural and natural sites. While the United States has not signed onto all the Conventions, American courts are among the world’s most active in seeking to halt trade in smuggled objects. In China, a major “source” country for the international art market, laws have been passed to protect cultural relics since the 1930’s, culminating in the 1982 Cultural Relics Law which protects all relics of the Chinese past, whether in public or in private hands.

In the last couple of years I have been incorporating discussion of these important issues into a number of my Art History classes, and have had an excellent response from students. Preservation of cultural heritage is an issue that cuts across the usual academic boundaries of period and place--it is an ideal way to incorporate “non-Western” material in any course on history, anthropology or art. In this presentation, I will review the issues involved, the major international agreements noted above, and discuss some of the major East Asian cultural heritage sites most affected. These would include sites of immediate interest to recent ASDP faculty, such as the Mogao Caves at Dunhuang, China, and famous protected sites such as the Great Wall of China, the Taj Mahal, the monuments of Kyoto, and Borobudur. We will consider the sorts of threats these come under, and the extent to which UNESCO or national protection is effective. I would also like to consider sites that are still in crisis due to war damage and destructive looting, such as the monuments of Angkor in Cambodia, as a way to introduce the issues of smuggling and repatriation in international law and American collecting.

THE WORLD HERITAGE LIST. As of December 1997, 552 properties worldwide have been inscribed on the World Heritage List: 418 cultural sites, 114 natural sites, and 20 mixed properties in 112 States. The list will next be updated at the next Committee meeting in December 1998. The following sites in selected Asian countries appear on the World Heritage List, given with the year of their inclusion, at UNESCO’s World Heritage List Website.



General works and anthologies:

Some specific East Asian cases:


Internet sites:

Videos of particular interest:


SUMMARY OF THE MAJOR LEGAL INSTRUMENTS AND CONVENTIONS. These summaries are based on information and explanations from the UNESCO and Molton and Meekins Web sites, for which I am grateful.

Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict (1954) (The Hague Convention). This convention came out of the experience of two World Wars. It recognizes the principle that the cultural heritage of any people is the cultural heritage of all. It declares that the deliberate targeting and destruction of non-military cultural heritage is a war crime. It laid the foundations for UNESCO’s efforts to preserve and protect threatened sites in war zones.

Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property (1970). This was the first UNESCO convention to deal with the problem of illegal export of cultural property and its return to source states. It alerts all states to the importance of their own cultural heritage and its protection from neglect, war, or threats from development. It also obligates signatories to take appropriate steps to return objects that could be shown by inventories to have come illegally from another state’s museums or other institutions. The United States is a signatory. The 1970 convention, though weak and only sporadically invoked, has provided the foundation for all subsequent activity in the field of cultural property law and the ethics of collecting.

Convention for the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage (1972). This set up the UNESCO World Heritage Centre in Paris, and the World Heritage List. Individual states nominate sites of world-wide cultural significance in their own territories to be added to the List for consideration by the Committee at annual meetings. Sites protected tend to be famous monuments, archeological sites of disappeared indigenous populations, and unique natural preserves or habitats. The Committee tries to publicize the sites, watch them carefully, and alert the world to any that may be threatened by war, neglect, or development.

Unidroit Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects (1995). UNESCO commissioned the International Commission Institute for the Unification of Private Law (Unidroit) to help prepare stronger rules and means than were envisioned in the 1970 Convention. It covers cases of theft, dispossession, ownership, and repatriation across national borders involving private citizens--really, it gets to the heart of the smuggling problem. It requires the return of cultural property to the source state, with compensation to owners in certain cases. The Unidroit Convention is intended to be a more balanced document than 1970, seeking to address concerns by “market” states as well as “source” states. The hope is that it will therefore be less widely ignored. This convention has not been ratified by the United States, though American courts, museums and collectors are increasingly acting on its principles.

People’s Republic of China laws on protecting China’s cultural heritage: The broad 1982 Cultural Relics Law is the centerpiece of the PRC’s cultural heritage law. The first such law in modern China was the 1930 Law on the Preservation of Ancient Objects which forbade the export of relics, their sale to foreign nationals, or excavation by foreign archeologists in China. In 1950, a revised version was passed by the PRC which maintained most of the prohibitions, but which contained some provisions for field reserch permission, cultural exchange, and export licensing of minor antiquities. Cultural heritage protection was extended to immovable sites in 1961.