For Better and For Worse: Evolving United States Policy on Cultural Property Litigation and Restitution

Document Type


Publication Date

August 2015


This article reviews the shift in cultural property litigation in the United States over the past twenty-five years from private replevin actions, in which the original owner sues the current possessor and must bear the costs as well as overcome procedural and logistical obstacles, in particular the statutes of limitation, to civil forfeiture actions instituted by the U.S. government to obtain restitution. The article then analyzes recent cases that arguably illustrate over-enforcement of the law through the use of unclear legal standards in civil forfeiture. It then turns to shortcomings in the effectiveness of U.S. law, in particular the difficulty in imposing emergency import restrictions in the cases of Iraq and Syria, and an over-emphasis on the use of civil forfeiture, which has largely replaced criminal prosecutions in the cultural property arena—but without which there is no true deterrent to trafficking in illegal cultural objects.