AXA ART in conversation with Dorit Straus, member of AXA ART Americas Board of Directors and Presidential appointee to the Cultural Property Advisory Committee

In June of 2014, AXA ART Americas elected Dorit Straus as member of its board of directors. Straus’s career as an important contributor to the fine art insurance industry spans 30 years. She has authored commentary on the implications of art theft, on the insurance industry and on insuring art. In 2013 Ms. Straus retired from her position as Worldwide Fine Art Manager at the Chubb Group of Insurance Companies, and now spends her time as an independent consultant and advocate for artists and the arts. Ms. Straus was recently appointed by President Obama as Member of the Cultural Property Advisory Committee, US Department of State, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.

AXA ART posed several question to Dorit Straus about the Cultural Property Advisory Committee and what she brings to the role as Member:

Q. Congratulations on this new appointment. Tell us a bit about the mission of the Cultural Property Advisory Committee?

The United States is among 121 States that are a party to the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. This convention provides a framework for cooperation among nations to reduce the incentive for pillage of archeological and ethnological materials. The United States played an active role in drafting the 1970 UNESCO Convention. This Convention was a direct response to the problem of the pillage of cultural property from countries who were culturally rich but have limited resources to protect their national patrimony, a problem which continues to this very day evidenced by numerous media reports.

The impact of pillage either through looting or due to conflicts of war deprives a nation of its cultural heritage. Unscientific digs of archeological sites destroys historical context and the final result is irretrievable loss of historical information.

The Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act enables the United States to implement the 1970 UNESCO Convention. The Act allows the United States to impose import restrictions on certain archaeological and ethnological material when the nation's cultural heritage is in jeopardy from pillage. If the Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) makes certain determinations, including that that cultural heritage of a requesting state is in jeopardy from pillage of archaeological or ethnological materials, the U.S. government may impose import restrictions on such material.

The Cultural Property Advisory Committee is composed of 11 private citizens who advise the President of the United States on the operation of the Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act. (The President's designated decision maker is the Assistant Secretary for Educational and Cultural Affairs.) Representation on the Committee is stipulated in the Act: two members represent the interests of Museums, three are expert in archaeology, anthropology, ethnology or related fields, three are experts in international sale of cultural property, and three members represent the interest of the general public.

Q. How long is your tenure on the committee?

Members are appointed for a three-year term.

Q. What is the process to get an agreement to protect and preserve cultural heritage?

Under the 1970 UNESCO Convention, State Parties whose cultural heritage is in jeopardy from pillage may submit a request to the United States seeking import restrictions on archaeological and or ethnological materials. Notifications of requests to the State Department are published in the federal Register.

The State Department asks the Cultural Property Advisory Committee to review such a request based on four criteria- known as determinations - set forth in the Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act. These criteria must be satisfied in order for the United States to enter into an agreement. The Committee then submits its recommendation about the request to the President and Congress; the ECA Assistant Secretary makes the ultimate decision to pursue an agreement.

If a favourable decision is made by the ECA Assistant Secretary, terms of the agreement are negotiated and the agreement is concluded by the governments. Agreements are effective for a period of up to five years and can be extended for additional five-year periods.
Import restrictions are effective upon publication of a list of designated materials in the Federal Register by Customs and Border Patrol; they are not retroactive. Enforcement is primarily through Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Q. How do you participate as a member?

I attend meetings and, together with the other committee members and with the additional support of the appropriate staff at the State Department, review the material that is presented in light of the four determinations set forth in the Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act: that the cultural patrimony of the State Party requesting the agreement is in jeopardy from pillage of archeological and ethnological material; the State party has taken measures consistent with the 1970 UNESCO Convention to protect its cultural patrimony; that the application of import restrictions, if applied in concert with similar restrictions by similarly-situated countries, would be of substantial benefit in deterring a serious situation of pillage; and the application of import restrictions is consistent with the general interest of the international community in the interchange of cultural property, for example loans to museums and cultural institutions in the pursuit of cultural exchanges and education.

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