Professor Robert Paterson

Born and raised in New Zealand, Professor Paterson attained a law degree in 1969 (coming first in his year) from the Victoria University of Wellington (New Zealand’s first Maori woman lawyer was a classmate). His next step was graduate school at Stanford University in California, followed by a professorship at Allard School of Law in 1975.

Professor Paterson’s initial specialty was the polar opposite of art: the study of the law of corporations. When the United Nations drafted a law on international commercial arbitration, Professor Paterson oversaw its adoption by the British Columbia legislature to utilize in arbitrating international trade disputes — key for a province dependent upon global sales of its natural resources. Later, Professor Paterson became involved with the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) as a member of its trade remedy bi-national review panel. International trade law can be idiosyncratic, calling upon skills of diplomacy as much as legal knowledge, which rests upon the fragile foundation of “countries respecting each other’s rights on a reciprocal basis,” says Professor Paterson, who has penned several books on international trade and cultural property law.

International trade law took a back seat in Professor Paterson’s professional life during a sabbatical at Australia’s University of Sydney where he met world-renowned cultural law professor Lyndel Prott. The meeting inspired Professor Paterson to organize a 1994 UNESCO-backed conference at UBC titled Material Culture in Flux, which addressed the contentious issue of repatriation of cultural property. A prolific writer on the legal aspects of art and culture, Professor Paterson went on to become an editor at the International Journal of Cultural Property and Rapporteur of the International Law Association’s Cultural Heritage Law Committee.

A peripatetic art collector who has journeyed throughout Asia, Africa and the South Pacific, Professor Paterson teaches the only course in Canada on Cultural Property and Art Law, in addition to a Cultural Law seminar. The study of art and cultural law has unique challenges, embracing such contentious issues as the repatriation of Aboriginal artifacts or the recovery of art confiscated by the Nazis. While fascinating, Professor Paterson warns students that this area of law is unlikely “to pay the rent like wills and estates.” But it can be a fulfilling sideline for those who are passionate about helping Aboriginal peoples reclaim their cultural heritage, or those who love the rarefied world of art, says Professor Paterson, who retires next year from teaching.

Retirement in 2016 doesn’t mean that Professor Paterson’s workload will diminish to any great extent, as he plans to continue his work connected to NAFTA as well as cultural property issues. He will also be monitoring the preservation and protection of the world’s antiquities, ready to step in with advice should a beleaguered nation befallen by bloody conflict nation call upon the international community to help save its historical treasures.

Listen to Allard Law History Project Interview with Professor Paterson. 

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