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International Cultural Heritage Loans: Seizure and Jurisdiction


*Please note that I am not your attorney, I am not giving legal advice, and there is no attorney-client relationship. All legal questions and conduct should be directed to your legal counsel.

This article is not intended to be a comprehensive guide on international cultural heritage loans. Rather, this article seeks to raise awareness of two key issues implicated in cultural heritage loans of which some museums might not be familiar. These two issues are seizure of international loaned cultural objects and the potential for the foreign lender to be sued in a U.S. court pursuant to the cultural object loan. Other cultural heritage loan issues, such as contracts and insurance will be a subject for another article.

International cultural loans can potentially be seized, which can embroil the borrower and lender in trials and unsavory public relations issues as well as injure the relationship between the two cultural organizations. Seizure of international loaned cultural objects can occur after a third party implements a lawsuit alleging they have a valid claim to the object.

However, under the Immunity from Seizure Act of 1965, U.S. cultural institutions can apply to the U.S. Department of State for immunity from seizure for the object before the object enters the U.S. If the application is successfully completed and approved, the lent object will be immunized from seizure.

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Borrowers and lenders should be aware that at least one court case has found immunity from seizure is not the same as immunity from jurisdiction such that while an object might be immune from seizure under the Immunity from Seizure Act, the actions involved in lending the object could subject the foreign lender to the jurisdiction of a U.S. court.

The following sources provide additional information on legal issues impacting international cultural heritage loans and were used in crafting this article:

  • U.S. Department of State, Immunity from Judicial Seizure – Cultural Objects
  • Malewicz v. City of Amsterdam, 362 F. Supp. 2d 298 (D.D.C. 2005).
  • Marie Malaro and Ildiko DeAngelis, A Legal Primer on Managing Museum Collections. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Books. 2012.
  • Patty Gerstenblith, Art, Cultural Heritage and the Law. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press. 2012.
  • Anne-Marie Rhodes, Art Law & Transactions. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press. 2011.
  • Smithsonian and ALI-CLE, Legal Issues in Museum Administration, Conference and Course Book.

Ms. Varner is an Attorney at Law, who has written multiple publications. She has lectured on issues impacting museums, cultural heritage, and arbitration. Ms. Varner is Executive Director of the National Art Museum of Sport. She also serves as Adjunct Professor at Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law.

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