Protecting Cultural Property

U.S. Implementation of the 1970 UNESCO Convention

Documentation of Endangered Musical Traditions in Mali (Ongoing)Cultural Heritage Center, U.S. Department of State

Cultural Property

Cultural property is a unique lens into the diversity of human history and cultures.  Archaeological artifacts, rare manuscripts, and objects used in ceremonies are common types of cultural property.

These objects represent and help shape community identity. When cultural property is looted, trafficked or destroyed the result is an irreplaceable loss of historical information and, ultimately, memory.

Conservation of 4th-Century BC Astronomical Horizon Markers at Chankillo Archaeological Site (4th Century)Cultural Heritage Center, U.S. Department of State

The 1970 UNESCO Convention

Considering that it is incumbent upon every State to protect the cultural property existing within its territory against the dangers of theft, clandestine excavation, and illicit export ...

Conservation of the Historical Collections of the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory (20th century)Cultural Heritage Center, U.S. Department of State

In 1970, to help counter a surge in looting and trafficking of cultural property, the U.S. worked with other countries at UNESCO to develop the Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property.  

Today, 143 countries are State Parties to the convention.  They have committed to take measures to enforce the security and safety of cultural property, such as export certifications, monitoring trade, and imposition of criminal or administrative sanctions.

Peru Repatriation by U.S. Dept of StateCultural Heritage Center, U.S. Department of State

Implementing the Convention

The U.S. uses cultural property agreements with other countries to implement the Convention.  Agreements create import restrictions that prevent stolen cultural property from entering the U.S., while encouraging legal sharing for scientific, cultural and educational purposes.

The U.S. signed its first cultural property agreement with the Government of El Salvador in 1995.  Since then, it's entered into 25 agreements with countries around the world, 10 of which were established in the last five years.  It also has in place Emergency Actions for cultural property from four additional countries.  Its most recent agreement is with the Government of Albania, as of February 28, 2022. 

Skanda on a Peacock RepatriationCultural Heritage Center, U.S. Department of State

A Framework for Returns

The agreements and other U.S. laws facilitate the return of cultural objects.  In 2022, the U.S. returned the Skanda on a Peacock statue to Cambodia.  Cambodia’s Ambassador to the U.S. Keo Chhea said, “It’s like a returning of the souls of our culture back to our people.”

Benin Bronze King by Franko KhouryCultural Heritage Center, U.S. Department of State


The agreements also promote temporary and long-term exchange of cultural property between countries for scientific, educational, and cultural purposes.

Oaxaca Handicrafts Mexico (2023/2023) by Cultural Heritage CenterCultural Heritage Center, U.S. Department of State


The U.S. is committed to safeguarding cultural diversity and cultural heritage in all its forms, understanding that diversity makes us stronger, and will help us build a better world for future generations.

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