China provides an interesting alternative approach for source nations eager for foreign archaeological investment. From 1935 to 2003, China had a restrictive cultural property law that prohibited foreign ownership of Chinese cultural artifacts. In those years, China’s most significant archaeological discovery occurred by chance, in 1974, when peasant farmers accidentally uncovered ranks of buried terra cotta warriors, which are part of Emperor Qin’s spectacular tomb system.
In 2003, the Chinese government switched course, dropping its cultural property law and embracing collaborative international archaeological research. Since then, China has nominated 11 archaeological sites for inclusion in the World Heritage Site list, including eight in 2013, the most ever for China.
China’s recent legal and archaeological development provides powerful evidence that changes in cultural property laws can alter incentives and increase culturally important discoveries. In light of the data, source nations — and UNESCO, whose 1970 anti-looting treaty plays an outsized role in these laws — should consider legal reforms to reverse the dramatic decline in archaeological discoveries that began with the spread of restrictive cultural property laws.
Adam Wallwork’s study of patrimony laws was published in the Indonesian Journal of International and Comparative Law in January. He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.