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Bar News - July 16, 2014

Practitioner Profile: Cultural Heritage Lawyer Expects the Unexpected


Rick St. Hilaire at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston with a sandstone statue of King Menkaure and his Queen.

Photo courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
To say Rick St. Hilaire knows his way around Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts is like saying he has an interest in the legal system.

Meet St. Hilaire on a Saturday afternoon in the museum lobby and you will quickly understand why this place is like a second home to him. Follow him up the John Singer Sargent Grand Staircase and be prepared for a guided tour like no other.

As you move toward the Ancient World collection, St. Hilaire seamlessly navigates the built-in labyrinth that adds a layer of security from would-be thieves. He knows by heart the intrigue most of these treasures hold based on their archaeological context. He lingers near a display of Egyptian tombs for as long as it takes to understand how every mummy wrap tells a story.

He proudly poses for a photo next to his favorite piece, a statue of King Menkaure and his Queen, carved from sandstone, circa 2500 B.C. What he appreciates most about it is the documentation that exists from the 1910 dig in Giza that unearthed this particular piece, and the untold story of why it was left unfinished in the pyramid ruins.

Hilaire, a former prosecutor and elected state official, has made a name for himself as an expert on ancient art and the various related legal issues and crimes. As a cultural heritage lawyer, Hilaire is sought out by museums, cultural institutions, archaeologists, arts organizations, and ethical collectors for a range of queries.

He’s come to expect the unexpected.

“This week I got a call on a dinosaur head, currently at a secret location museum. They are concerned about their collection and whether the government has the authority to seize it,” says St. Hilaire, explaining the latest in federal regulations and an international world of intrigue over the rightful ownership of antiquities.

He stops next to a copper alloy piece on display, “The Horseman,” part of the controversial Benin collection gifted to the MFA, artifacts from the Kingdom of Benin, now known as southern Nigeria.

Since the exhibition opened there have been rumblings about whether the items should be repatriated to Africa because they were looted in the 16th century by the British, and because their Nigerian ancestors are still very much a living culture, says St. Hilaire.

Beyond those kinds of compelling legal and ethical questions, St. Hilaire is especially concerned with looting of archaeological sites, which destroys the vital context of artifacts making it virtually impossible to tell the stories behind the pieces – something that means everything in terms of historical value.

His interest in cultural property law began and deepened after a meeting with his former archeology professor, John Russell, from Massachusetts College of Art & Design, who in 2000 was involved in the investigation of the looting of archeological sites in Iraq.

“He showed me photographs of looter pits – acres and acres as far as the eye could see, that looked like the moon with craters where artifacts had been looted. That got my attention,” St. Hilaire said.

Since then cultural property law has become a specialty for him and led him several years ago to launch, where he blogs about at a range of international legal and ethical issues involving art and antiquities. That is how people from around the world interested in authenticating dinosaur heads or disputing the origin of ancient coins find him.

When the need arises, he works closely with Tori Reed, MFA’s curator of provenance, whose job it is to dig deep into the the past ownership of pieces offered to the museum for loan or purchase.

Think history detective with an impeccable art pedigree and unlimited street cred.

“My wish is that all museums could have a Tori. She does the due diligence in checking the background of objects and antiquities,” says St. Hilaire.

Looting and the black market trading of antiquities continues to be a hot topic for St. Hilaire. As drug cartels and transnational crime networks find it more difficult to transfer cash, they find other ways to engage in trade-based money laundering through art, which can go virtually unnoticed by regulators – whether it’s manipulating the invoice for an Egyptian water jug, or rolling cash into an imported rug.

“My favorite story, to this day, is about some guys from Thailand who smuggled looted pots out of the country simply by putting ‘Made in Thailand’ stickers on them, which of course made them look like any other tourist goods,” says St. Hilaire. “They made it look too easy.”

Carol Robidoux is a freelance writer based in Manchester.

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