Art & Antiquities Law: Owning the Past to Preserve It for the Future

by Julia Rhine

My favorite book growing up was From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, by E. L. Konigsburg. Its plot revolves around 12 year old Claudia Kincaid and her adventures running away from home. She is no impetuous young runaway, but rather strategizes her escape for weeks and selects as her refuge the most magical destination she can think of—the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She spends her days sneaking into student group tours to learn more about the museum’s galleries, and at night she is a preservationist’s nightmare, bathing in the fountain, fingering exhibits, and sleeping in a 16th century bed. As the story unfolds, Claudia becomes obsessed with identifying the artist of a certain sculpture of unknown provenance.

As a young girl, I thought the book’s subplot of Claudia figuring out the artist’s identity was simply a fun whodunit. As an occupational hazard of going to law school, I now think about that element in an entirely new light, supposing the sculpture’s donor as anonymous as the artist. How risky it would be “in real life” for the Met to have such a piece in its custody! Museums, lenders, private collectors, etc. should only accept items with demonstrated authenticity, established provenance, and clear title. Imagine if Claudia’s sculpture had been wrested by the Nazis or, setting the story in modern times, poached from the Iraq Museum? Whoever says the law is a field dull and unromantic has certainly never considered art and antiquities law.

Although most of the high drama for art law is geographically focused around the major art market cities, places like New York and Dubai, art law principles apply universally. Tangible cultural property is located everywhere, and wherever it is, it deserves legal protection. For an example close to us, take the recent Four Corners archeological raids. On June 9, 2009, in Durango, CO and three other cities, FBI and BLM (Bureau of Land Management) conducted 17 simultaneous pre-dawn SWAT raids into the homes of people who collected Native American relics. The SWAT raids resulted in the seizure of thousands of artifacts that had been removed from the ruins of the Anasazi cliff dwellings and burial sites. A group of 24 collectors and dealers were charged with felonies and misdemeanors under the Archaeological Resource Protection Act (ARPA), which prohibits, among other things, the taking of Native American artifacts from tribal and federal land.

Perhaps I should write a sequel to From the Mixed-Up Files in which a grown-up attorney Claudia wins the big case that returns her statue to its rightful owner (though I do fear I would go crazy trying to find all the places in my manuscript where I wrote “statute” instead of “statue.”) In fact, I could fashion a prologue in my book symmetrical to the first, which is a letter from Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler addressed “To my lawyer, Saxonberg.” Koinburg creatively styled her prologue as the cover letter for the narrative, which ultimately explains a change Mrs. Frankweiler makes to her last will and testament. My favorite book growing up starts “To my lawyer…” I guess I always knew.

J RhineJulia received her B.A. in Classics and Anthropology from the University of Colorado at Boulder and her J.D. from the University of Michigan Law School.  She is currently clerking for the Honorable John L. Kane, U.S. Senior District Judge for the District of Colorado.  She loves archaeology, ballet, and rock climbing.

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