Acquisitions and Collections of Cultural Items

Cultural items worldwide are protected by a range of laws, treaties, conventions and policies designed to preserve a country’s national heritage and prevent theft, looting, and illicit trade.  These protections cover a wide range of items, including but not limited to:

  • works of art,
  • archeological and ethnological materials,
  • antiquities and artifacts,
  • books, manuscripts, and papers,
  • wild flora and fauna,
  • paleontological specimens, and
  • archival materials.

They apply whether an item was obtained by purchase, through discovery, or as a gift.  And they may regulate or restrict the movement of cultural items internally and/or across borders.  Often they place the burden of determining the item’s provenance on the individual in possession.

Below you will find information and links to the main international and U.S. laws and conventions, standards and codes of conduct related to acquisitions and accessions, lists of items that may not be imported into the U.S. or have been reported stolen, and resources to assist with determining provenance, conducting due diligence, and navigating the export and import requirements that apply to cultural items.

Contact us to request assistance with specific matters and countries, including those subject to U.S. sanctions and embargoes, such as Cuba.

Laws, Conventions & Treaties

The Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict (1954 Hague Convention) requires countries to protect cultural property during armed conflict and obliges occupying nations to take responsibility for the cultural items of the country they are occupying.

The 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export, and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property provides a framework for international cooperation in addressing the problem of looting.

The 1983 Cultural Property Implementation Act (U.S.) enables the U.S. under the 1970 UNESCO Convention to impose import restrictions on designated categories of cultural items vulnerable to looting at the request of another nation that is party to the Convention.  A listing of such item categories may be found here.  In 2016, the U.S. passed the Protect and Preserve International Cultural Property Act which authorized U.S. import restrictions “with respect to any archaeological or ethnological material of Syria.”  More information on these import restrictions is available on the website of the U.S. Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.

The 1995 UNIDROIT Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects strengthens restrictions on the import and export of cultural items.  The U.S. has not signed this treaty.

The 1934 U.S. National Stolen Property Act criminalizes the possession of stolen property worth $5,000 or more that has crossed a federal or state border if the possessor knows the property was stolen or fraudulently obtained.  Penalties for noncompliance include fines and imprisonment up to 10 years.

The Pre-Columbian Monumental, Architectural Sculpture or Murals Act of 1972 restricts the import of stone carvings or murals that are the product of a Pre-Columbian Indian Culture in Central and South America.  Those wishing to import such items into the U.S. must have a valid export permit from the country of origin.

The Iraqi Cultural Antiquities Act of 2004 restricts import into the U.S. of cultural property of Iraq that was illegally removed from the Iraq National Museum, National Library of Iraq, and other locations since 1990.

Laws of other countries designed to protect their cultural heritage can be found in the UNESCO Database of National Cultural Heritage Laws.  This resource contains copies of national legislation, current import/export certificates, contact details for the national authorities responsible for the protection of cultural heritage, and links to official national cultural heritage websites.

The United States signed individual agreements with Peru (1981) and Guatemala (1984) to facilitate the recovery and return of stolen archeological, historical, and cultural properties with a focus on pre-Columbian archeological objects, colonial period objects, and archival documents from the period prior to 1920.

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) is an international agreement dating to 1975 designed to make sure that international trade in plant and animal specimens does not threaten their survival.  The import, export, and introduction from the sea, of animals and plants covered by the convention is subject to licensing requirements managed by the individual member states to the Convention.  In the U.S. that licensing is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Import, Export, and Customs Information

Works of Art, Collector’s Pieces, Antiques and Other Cultural Property (2006) is a guide published by the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol containing information about customs duties on and import restrictions related to cultural items.

This Guide to Cultural Property Import Restrictions Currently Imposed by the United States provides a country-by-country listing of what items are subject to import restrictions, with links to relevant Federal Register entries and underlying documentation.

The U.S. State Department Cultural Heritage Center makes available an online Image Database containing illustrations of objects that are subject to U.S. import restrictions.  The database is organized by country.

The import, export, and introduction from the sea of wild animals and plants covered by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) is subject to licensing requirements managed by the individual member states to the Convention.  In the U.S., that licensing is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service International Affairs.

Resources for Conducting Due Diligence & Establishing Provenance

The UK publication Combating Illicit Trade provides a set of guidelines for conducting due diligence and establishing provenance of cultural items.

The International Council of Museums Red Lists Database contains information about works of art and artifacts that are likely to have been acquired illicitly.  Red Lists exist for regions such as Africa and Latin America, as well as certain countries such as Afghanistan, Peru, Cambodia, China, Egypt, Syria and others.

The Art Loss Register maintains an extensive private database of art which has been reported as missing, fake, or stolen.  Users may request a search of the database or report a loss.

The Getty Research Institute Collecting and Provenance Research website offers a series of resources for researching the provenance of a cultural item, including archival inventories, auction catalogs, and dealer stock books.

The American Association of Museum Directors (AAMD) maintains an online registry of new acquisitions of archeological materials and works of ancient art for which members lack complete information about provenance.  The AAMD also makes available a registry of resolution of claims for Nazi-era cultural assets, which contains records of restitutions and claims made since 1998.

The International Foundation for Art Research Provenance Guide lists multiple resources for researching the provenance of an item and contains a section devoted to WWII provenance research.

The Frick Art Reference Library provides resources for researching the provenance of paintings, drawings, sculpture, and prints primarily by European and American artists from the fourth to mid-twentieth centuries.

Standards & Codes

The International Council of Museums’ Code of Ethics sets out the “minimum standards of professional practice and performance” for ICOM members.

The International Council of Museums’ Code of Ethics for Natural History Museums (2013) presents definitions and standards specific to the needs of natural history museums.

The Register of Professional Archaeologists Code of Conduct and the Archaeological Institute of America’s Code of Ethics describe standards of practice for members and professionals in the field.