Cultural property law is the body of law that relates to protecting the buildings, artifacts, and other items that are significant to a people and culture.
Cultural property is the collection of unique real and personal property that’s important to a culture.
The field of cultural property law seeks to protect cultural items that are important to a society or group.
Cultural property may include any of the following:
- Ancient buildings
- Cultural buildings like museums and performing arts centers
- Significant sites like burial grounds and historic sites
- Historic buildings like old houses
- Ancient remains
- Religious and ceremonial items
- Other ancient relics
Cultural property law concerns itself with how to fairly go about protecting cultural property.
While cultural property is significant to society as a whole, it may also have a current property owner.
That person who possesses the property may or may not lawfully own the property.
When a person lawfully owns the property, they have a private property right in addition to the greater question of preserving the item for the public good.
Cultural Property Is a Local, National, and International Issue
Cultural property law spans state and national boundaries.
Internationally, the preservation of cultural property is an important issue during times of war.
Nation states must determine how to preserve cultural property between states in times of conflict.
In addition, states must work together in order to investigate and prosecute thefts of cultural property.
On a national level, governments must determine when to create federal laws relating to the preservation of cultural property.
They must also establish enforcement agencies in order to meaningfully enforce violations of the law.
Finally, they must coordinate the investigation and enforcement of cultural property law violations that cross state lines.
Perhaps some of the most contentious cultural property debates occur on the local level.
Local governments may want to preserve historic buildings or landmarks.
They might want to restrict private use of the property on the basis of cultural preservation.
Property owners rely on cultural property attorneys in order to defend their rights.
Cultural property attorneys also work on behalf of the local governments that consider passing measures to protect local cultural property.
Cultural Property Law is Both Civil and Criminal
The field of cultural property law spans both civil and criminal law.
In some cases, blatant theft of personal property is a criminal matter.
The offender can face incarceration and fines in the jurisdiction where the theft occurs.
In other cases, enforcing cultural property law is a matter of civil law.
Enforcing civil law may be a matter of drafting and filing a civil claim for the return of the property.
Lawyers who practice cultural property law may focus solely on criminal prosecutions or civil actions.
Alternatively, they may encounter cultural property law incidentally as part of a larger law practice.
Major Treaties and Laws
There are a number of significant national laws and international treaties that address cultural property preservation:
The Roerich Pact
The Roerich Pact is an international treaty passed by 21 Pan-American states in 1935.
The Pact protects historic monuments and institutions of artistic and scientific significance from intentional destruction in times of war.
The purpose of the Pact is for nation-states to recognize that the preservation of culture is more important than military objectives.
The Roerich Pact is the brainchild of Russian painter Nicholas Roerich.
Roerich is largely credited with founding the modern cultural preservation movement.
Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict
Effective in 1956, the Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict is a response to the widespread destruction of cultural buildings and artifacts during World War II.
There are 128 member states.
The treaty calls for each state to preserve its own cultural property during peacetime and for member states to respect the cultural property of other states during times of war.
The Convention is credited with the preservation of significant cultural institutions during the Gulf War as military operatives made conscious decisions to refrain from attacks that could damage historical sites and items of cultural significance.
The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act
The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 is a U.S. law that requires federal agencies and federally funded state and local institutions to return Native American cultural items to their descendants and affiliated tribes.
The U.S. Secretary of the Interior oversees this law, and there is federal grant money to aid in agency compliance.
Individuals who participate in trafficking Native American human remains or cultural items without ownership of the items may receive 12 months in prison and a fine of up to $100,000.
Theft of Major Artwork
One U.S. law that aims to protect cultural property is the federal Theft of Major Artwork law.
The law makes it illegal to steal major pieces of artwork from a U.S. museum.
An offense can result in 10 years in federal prison and a fine.
In order to qualify as a major artwork, the stolen artwork must be more than 100 years old and worth more than $5,000.
If the artwork isn’t more than 100 years old, it qualifies as major art if it’s worth more than $100,000.
Other Significant Cultural Property Treaties and Legislation
Additional major legislation includes:
- American Resources Protection Act
- Theft of Government Property Act
- National Stolen Property Act
- Hobbs Act
- Obstruction of Justice laws
- Perjury laws
Challenges in the Protection of Cultural Property
Protecting cultural property poses some unique legal challenges.
First, stolen items of personal property may not be recovered for years after their theft.
An item might travel through many owners during that time.
In addition, attorneys who practice cultural property law must be ready for ongoing jurisdictional challenges.
Theft of cultural property often begins in one location but then moves to another jurisdiction when the property moves across state lines.
Working with law enforcement agencies and courts nationally and internationally can prove to be a challenge.
Attorneys working on criminal or civil cases should be mindful of jurisdictional issues that may be present which can complicate their case.
An Example of Jurisdictional Challenges – the Wyatt Yeager Case
One example of how the challenges in cultural property law enforcement can play out is the Wyatt Yeager theft case.
Yeager worked at the American Numismatic Association Money Museum in Colorado Springs as a collections supervisor.
He began taking rare coins. Over time, he amassed more than $1 million in rare coins.
He moved to Ireland where he sold the coins.
The coins made their way throughout Europe.
Law enforcement and prosecutors had to collaborate throughout many countries to track witnesses and find the stolen coins.
Yaeger eventually agreed to extradition and pleaded guilty to the thefts.
Who Practices Cultural Property Law?
Cultural property lawyers are both criminal and civil lawyers.
They might work for a large organization on an international matter, or they might work for an individual client on a small issue like the historical preservation of a home.
Cultural property lawyers are the government lawyers who implement treaties and enforce violations of anti-theft laws.
Cultural lawyers are also lawyers who bring and defend civil actions on behalf of clients in regard to cultural property law.
A lawyer who works on behalf of a cultural institution might handle all of the legal needs of the institution.
While there are few lawyers who practice solely cultural property law, there are many lawyers whose careers touch on the subject matter in their practice.
Why Become a Cultural Property Lawyer?
Cultural property lawyers perform work that transcends their locality, their state, and even their lifetime.
They perform work of international significance that has the potential to impact society indefinitely into the future.
In addition, cultural property lawyers often receive local, national, and international exposure for their work.
For lawyers who want to devote their career to a meaningful public cause that often brings notoriety, cultural property law may be a good fit.
Preserving Cultural Property
Governmental units large and small struggle with how to preserve important property.
They rely on lawyers to help them develop and enforce laws and treaties that protect cultural property.
Lawyers who focus on cultural property law perform important work for their clients and for society at large.
They have the opportunity to preserve cultural property both now and in the future while balancing private property rights.