Stolen Cultural Property and the Complex Path of Return
In the fight against illicit trafficking of cultural property, prevention is key. As a stolen object is transported, sold or changes hands and as time elapses, the chances of its return or restitution become slim. Research, claims, seizure, proof and treaties come into play making “getting it back” a complicated affair, which at times comes down to a moral decision or bilateral negotiations when no law applies.
In an effort to offer solutions, the Intergovernmental Committee for Promoting the Return of Cultural Property to its Countries of Origin or its Restitution in case of Illicit Appropriation (ICPRCP) met at UNESCO Headquarters in Paris, from 29 to 30 September 2016. Chaired by Mr Zvolt Visy (Hungary), with Mr Collins Chipote (Zambie) as Rapporteur, it considered a variety of cases and measures before adopting a set of Resolutions and Decisions.
Ms Tone Hansen, Director of the Henie Onstad Art Centre in Norway, presented the much publicized case of the museum’s restitution in 2014 of a Matisse painting to the family of Jewish art dealer Paul Rosenberg. Having learned in 2012 that the painting had been looted by the Nazi’s, the museum researched the painting’s path of owners and transport, replete with gaps and dead end’s. “We knew that it was stolen, and with no law to decide the matter for us we had to be guided by ethics, we had to return it” she explained. “After 60 years before the public the painting is now in private hands, but the story and the exhibition about it are very important and the public has these” she added.
With its work closely tied to that of the 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, the Committee promotes practical tools and communication to raise public awareness about trafficking in and return of stolen objects.
Discussing the use of free-ports in illicit trafficking, another recent restitution case was presented by Ms Michelle Medira, World Customs Organization. After spending 15 years hidden away in a Geneva, Switzerland free-port and following police investigations and court proceedings, two rare Etruscan sarcophaguses and 45 boxes of Etruscan antiquities were returned to Italy on 14 January 2016. Illicitly excavated, the objects had been brought to Geneva by a former high-profile British art dealer. The restitution was made possible thanks to Swiss legislation and cooperation in criminal matters. “Free-zones are equally attractive to legitimate companies and to criminals who traffic and launder money through stolen cultural goods. We want to ensure efficiency, security and transparency with effective controls for the international supply chain” said Ms Medira. With some 3000 free-zones across 135 countries today, tighter controls and legislation allowing customs authorities to better monitor the entry and exit of identified goods and owners can counter illicit activities.
Dr Despina Pilides, Department of Antiquities of Cyprus, explained the strict national laws limiting ownership and use of metal detectors used by treasure hunters. Unauthorized use near archaeological sites or without a permit are prosecuted as criminal offenses. Cypriot police and the Department of Antiquities work nationally and internationally to monitor this growing threat. In 2003 the Italian Carabinieri officially restituted to Cyprus 10,000 ancient coins they had seized. Illicitly excavated coins sold on the Internet is another prolific problem. “Cypriot antiquities appear almost on a daily basis in the sales register of auction houses and other internet based companies… It is only through co-operation between services and countries and through educating the public that we will move forward” Pilides concluded.
UNESCO Member States which have lost certain cultural objects of fundamental significance and are calling for their restitution or return, in cases where international conventions cannot be applied, may call on the Committee for assistance. The case of the Parthenon Sculptures lies before the Committee, and the United Kingdom and Greece reported on their ongoing negotiations. Zambia informed the Committee that it will bring forward a case for the return of the scientifically significant Broken Hill Man Skull from the United Kingdom.
The diversity of successful return and restitution of cultural property provides multiple models to learn from. Professor Marc-Andre Reynold, Law Faculty Director, University of Geneva, presented the ArThemis database where the details of the resolution of disputes involving cultural property are collected and can be consulted. The Committee endorsed UNESCO’s support to this extremely useful tool.
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