More Than You Bargained Forby Sallie Brady
Sometimes a little overseas purchase can lead to big trouble. Sallie Brady explains the complicated international laws that govern what you can and cannot buy abroad
When retired surgeon and archaeology buff Dr. Joel Teplinsky bought $2,000 worth of bronze figurines, stone oil lamps, and coins from a shop in Lebanon, he had no idea his purchase would land him and his adult daughter, Aimee, in jail.
But a few days later, when the two entered Egypt on their trip through the Middle East, they were charged with smuggling antiquities and were put behind bars. They were released a day later, only after they had pled their innocence before a special prosecutor.
Although Teplinsky had no idea he might be breaking the law, Egyptian authorities charged him with defying a UNESCO Convention that prohibits the ownership and transport of cultural property. With no export permits or proof of provenance for the objects, Teplinsky could not prove that he wasn't violating the treaty. Even if Teplinsky had made it home to Los Angeles with his treasures, there's a good chance his booty would have been confiscated by U.S. customs officers at LAX, since the United States, like Egypt, is a keen enforcer of that UNESCO Convention.
To those unfamiliar with international laws and treaties governing the sale of antiquities, shopping the globe can be a minefield. The UNESCO Convention, drafted in 1970 and signed by 103 countries, was created to curb the illicit import and export of cultural property. This means that purchasing antiquities (including some art just over 50 years old), archaeological artifacts, and ethnological objects can be illegal. "You need a certificate of origin, an export permit, and your receipts," says special agent Tim Carey of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, in Newark, New Jersey. "If you come into the United States without those documents, we will hold the items and you could be prosecuted." Carey also warns against buying objects in "red flag" areas—the United Arab Emirates, Hong Kong, Japan, and London—where stolen cultural property frequently ends up. (For more on prohibited cultural property, go to exchanges.state.gov/culprop.)
When making purchases abroad, travelers must consider not only whether what they buy can be legally taken from the country they're visiting but also whether they will be permitted to bring it into the United States.
While every country has its own export watch list (see "Buyer Beware"), the objects causing the most trouble are, in general, those that could have been made from an endangered species, those that could be considered antiquities or cultural artifacts, foodstuffs, and handcrafts made from plant materials that could harbor pests.
Courier services such as DHL (dhl.com) and Federal Express (fedex.com) maintain detailed country profiles that list what goods can and cannot be taken across the border.