The focus of a simmering debate over stolen art - centered for months in the Mediterranean - is moving east this week to China, a country pushing America for a wide-ranging ban on cultural imports.
Amid the wheeling and dealing of the city's annual Asia Week of art fairs, sales, and exhibitions, leading scholars of Chinese culture will gather at the Asia Society on Monday evening for a symposium focusing on the controversy surrounding allegedly looted artifacts and its impact on China's booming art market.
The forum comes as the State Department is considering a request by the Chinese government to outlaw the import of Chinese artifacts dating from prehistoric times to 1912. China first made the request in 2004 under terms of a 1970 United Nations treaty, adopted by Congress in 1983, that allows countries to ask for such bans as a way to stop the pillaging of ancient archaeological sites.
The appeal has stirred a debate that echoes the ongoing dispute involving countries such as Italy, Greece, and Egypt that are clamoring for the return of antiquities from several American museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
On one side are archaeologists who say America, as a key player in the worldwide art market, must do all it can to help protect cultural patrimony around the globe, starting with agreements to ban imports of antiquities. Critics contend that such an accord would have little effect on the brisk trade in artifacts of sometimes dubious provenance, and would only stifle the legitimate antiquities trade in America. They argue that China must first do its part to improve what they say is a poor job of protecting its ancient sites.
"The Chinese have the worst record of protecting cultural property in the world," a New York dealer of Chinese art, James Lally, said. Mr. Lally, a panelist at next week's symposium, criticized the State Department's implementation of the U.N. treaty through bilateral agreements, saying it gave too much policing power to customs officials. "The U.S. Customs office is soon going to be enforcing the customs laws of every country in the world," he said.
A scholar of Chinese culture at Cornell University, Magnus Fiskesjo, however, said all nations need to work together for the protection of cultural property. He called China's request for an import ban laudable. "I feel absolutely we should do our part from outside China to help them," Mr. Fiskesjo said,
Cultural officials at the Chinese consulate in New York could not be reached for comment yesterday. The Chinese government has stepped up its efforts at cultural reform in recent years, including improving protection at archaeological sites.
State Department deliberations regarding China's request have largely been shrouded in secrecy. More than a year has passed since the 11-member Cultural Property Advisory Committee held a lone public hearing. A State Department spokeswoman, Janelle Hironimus, said only that the request remains under consideration.
Most observers agree that China's request is excessively broad. The 1983 American cultural property law does not allow a ban on objects less than 250 years old.
The State Department may also consider the appeal in the context of a larger and more complicated diplomatic relationship with China, a professor at the Cardozo School of Law, Justin Hughes, said. "This is a very small piece of that entire puzzle," Mr. Hughes, who is moderating Monday's panel, said.