International Journal of Cultural Property


A Licit International Trade in Cultural Objects

John Henry Merrymana11

a1 Sweitzer Professor of Law and Cooperating Professor of Art Emeritus, Stanford University, and President, International Cultural Property Society


Retentive nationalism has until recently dominated thinking about the international movement of cultural property, while the international interest in an active licit trade has been ignored and the interests of museums, collectors and the art and antiquities trade have been denigrated. An active licit market in cultural property advances the international interest, provides income to source nations and reduces the harm done by the black market. Trade in “culturally moveable” objects in private hands serves the international interest and is internationally licit, even when it offends national export controls. Source nations can reduce the damage from clandestine excavations by employing more sophisticated domestic controls and feeding surplus archaeological objects to the licit market. The “commodification” objection to an active trade in cultural objects lacks substance. Market nations can provide the most effective political force for development of an active market. They, and the art and antiquities trade, can help source nations finance organization of their cultural property resources for effective participation in a licit international trade.


1 I am indebted to Gilbert S. Edelson, Albert E. Elsen, André Emmerich, Marc Franklin, Ruth Franklin, Ranee Katzenstein, Frank L. Kovacs, Constance Lowenthal, David Lowenthal, J. David Murphy, Patrick J. O'Keefe, Lyndel Prott, Daniel Shapiro, Thomas Seligman, Karen D. Vitelli and Nancy D. Merryman, a dealer in contemporary art, for their comments and suggestions and to the staff of the Stanford Law Library for superb research support. All errors of fact, taste and judgment are of course mine.