New York arts lawyer Thomas C. Danziger received a telephone call late one night in 2009 from "a guy in a hotel in Hong Kong" who discovered he had a legal problem. The man, a Park Avenue collector of art and antiquities, had just bought from a Hong Kong antiques dealer a small clay figurine in the shape of a horse that dated to China's Tang Dynasty, sometime in the ninth century.
Eager to bring his purchase back home, the collector contacted a New York antiques dealer who told him of a memorandum of understanding between the United States and China reached in the last days of the George W. Bush administration that would soon restrict the import into this country of all Chinese antiquities from as far back as the Paleolithic period (the earliest period of the Stone Age, more than 75,000 years ago) through the end of the Tang Dynasty (907 AD). The Chinese government, like many other countries around the world, was seeking to protect the nation's cultural "patrimony" -- its national sense of self. The collector had just bought something legally that he soon could not legally take out of the country.
The New York dealer had the collector call Danziger because of his experience in resolving problems involving the import of restricted items.
"I told the guy to go back to the dealer in Hong Kong from whom he bought the horse and get a certificate that states the origins of the piece and the fact that it came out of China before the memorandum of understanding went into effect," Danziger said. With that certificate in hand, the collector returned with the figurine, safely passing through US Customs.
Not everyone is as lucky. Sometimes, legitimately purchased and exported items are seized, which takes time and money to resolve. "With US Customs, they seize first and inquire later," said William G. Pearlstein, a New York lawyer.
"Uncontested seizures by customs take place all the time," Pearlstein said. "If you didn't pay a lot of money for it, you're not likely to spend thousands of dollars to fight customs to get it back, so you'll just walk away. Many people do."
The United States is one of few countries that do not place export restrictions on cultural artifacts. Many nations of the developing world have established wholesale embargos of all art from their borders, such as the restriction on all pre-Columbian objects in Mexico, and Central and South America. Greece and Turkey also have memorandums of understanding involving thousands of years.
And rules change from one nation to the next. In some cases, particularly in Europe, decisions are made on a case-by-case basis.
The issues aren't necessarily the age or value of the item, just the foreign government's sense of its national value. Also, governments lay claim to objects they never knew existed, such as ruins found in coastal waters. And nations with embargos often have considerable black market activity.
To be safe, many people who buy works of art or antiques in these countries pay on a contingency basis, after the piece has been approved for export and is delivered. It is smart to settle in writing that the final price includes the cost of insurance (for full market value), customs fees, any warehousing and export taxes.
That only works, however, if one buys from established dealers rather than from sellers in local bazaars or small shops.
It is best to get information about what you might want to buy before going abroad. Among the online sources are the US State Department and US Customs, and the New York-based International Foundation for Art Research. You may also request information from the cultural attaché of a foreign consulate.
While abroad, Michael McCullough, former Sotheby's compliance counsel, said travelers can contact the US Embassy in a particular country, where officials can help interpret laws.
Buying art or antiques abroad requires not only money, but patience.