Who Owns the Past in U.S. Museums? An Economic Analysis of Cultural Patrimony Ownership
Sean R. Odendahl   |   2001 U. Ill. L. Rev. 475

Throughout history, works of art have been separated from the cultures that created them. Whether through sale, barter, salvage, war, or outright thievery, the artifacts that tell us so much about a culture often lose their cultural attachment and become subject to the whims of private owners.

Yet, most cultural artifacts carry a high subjective value-that attributed to the artifact as part of a cultural patrimony-which reflects the artifact's worth in defining a society or culture. As a result, preserving these artifacts, maintaining their integrity, and ensuring access and distribution are paramount goals.

In this note, Sean Odendahl examines current U.S. law regarding vested rights in cultural artifacts. Characterizing the U.S. view of cultural patrimony rights as a traditional, nationalist approach, he highlights the problems inherent in such an approach. Mr. Odendahl then suggests that an international approach makes more sense, both economically and legally.

Applying the international approach to cultural patrimony law, this note introduces a three-tiered system for determining ownership rights while minimizing costs. Indeed, such an approach is not only efficient, but also satisfies the end-goals of cultural patrimony law: preservation, integrity, and distribution of cultural artifacts. In the end, the nation that most values the artifact gains ownership, provided that it has the means to achieve these goals.

*Member 1999-2001, Editor-in-Chief 2000-01, University of Illinois Law Review; A.B. 1997, J.D. 2001, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.