How to create a responsible art market?

Webinars cycle in collaboration with the National Cultural Heritage Commission of Uruguay

The clandestine trade in cultural goods is estimated to be the third largest international illegal activity, surpassed only by drug and arms trafficking in monetary terms. It is an illegal business that is not very visible and has increased considerably in the context of the pandemic and may even become a threat to international peace.

Illicit trafficking in cultural goods, involving misappropriation, theft, robbery and reception, as well as the illegal import and export of items of heritage value, is a problem on a global scale: it ranks third among international criminal activities, after arms and drugs trafficking. And the region is no exception to this problem. Therefore UNESCO and the National Cultural Heritage Commission of Uruguay are organising a series of short webinars on 8, 9 and 10 December 2020. The events will be open to the public and where international experts will share experiences that will help to tackle and penalise these crimes in all their forms. The sessions will take place between 11:00 and 12:00 in Uruguay through the YouTube channel of the UNESCO Office in Montevideo.

Although little is known about the issue outside of specialized areas, this clandestine business has increased in recent years among mafia and terrorist organizations around the world, including Latin America, that use it for money laundering and financing their activities. In many places, this scenario was exacerbated especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, due to the decreased surveillance at museums and archaeological sites and the multiplication of online transactions, both online sales platforms and social networks. In fact, interest in acquiring mosaics, funerary urns, sculptures, statuettes, or ancient manuscripts has never been so intense, according to The UNESCO Courier.

This clandestine market is becoming increasingly important and globalised, posing enormous challenges for art businesses and collectors, who face a growing number of operational and reputational risks, as well as an increase in the number of anti-money laundering regulations. Therefore, it is essential to share experiences and adopt approaches that reduce risks for art market actors, while increasing the country's commitment to protecting its cultural heritage.

In 1977, Uruguay ratified the "1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property", the international legal framework that allows efficient measures to be taken for the protection of cultural heritage. Since 2017, there has also been a National Committee that functions as an inter-institutional space to promote the coordination and consolidation of a national policy in this area. However, as in the rest of the world, there are still some weaknesses that need to be addressed. The theft of cultural property, for example, has increased in recent years. There is also growing concern about the counterfeiting of works of art and the difficulty of certifying the authenticity of some pieces on sale.

Actors in the art market (auction houses, antique dealers, gallery owners, collectors, assessors, auctioneers, as well as online sales platforms) become key figures. With the collaboration of government authorities, police and customs officials, lawyers and museum staff, a difference can be made in creating a responsible art market that reduces risks for businesses and collectors and increases public confidence in the market and the country's ability to protect its memory and cultural heritage.

UNESCO’s commitment

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the 1970 Convention. For more than 50 years, UNESCO has developed a legal reference that provides a common framework for States Parties on the measures to be taken to prohibit and prevent the import, export and transfer of illicit cultural property. Numerous awareness-raising actions, training sessions aimed at legal strengthening, as well as various tools have been developed in collaboration with INTERPOL, ICOM, UNIDROIT or the World Customs Organization, such as the database of national cultural heritage laws, the Object ID identification form and the model export certificate, among others.

UNESCO also promotes an "International Code of Ethics for Dealers in Cultural Property", which recognises the essential role that trade plays in the dissemination of culture and distribution to museums and private collectors, proposing principles of professional practice that distinguish between cultural objects resulting from illicit trade and those originating from licit trade.

What is cultural property?

According to the 1970 Convention, cultural property means property which, on religious or secular grounds, is specifically designated by each State as being of importance for archaeology, prehistory, history, literature, art or science.

They can belong to the following categories: rare collections and specimens of fauna, flora, minerals and anatomy, and objects of paleontological interest; property relating to history; products of archaeological excavations (including regular and clandestine) or of archaeological discoveries; elements of artistic or historical monuments or archaeological sites which have been dismembered; antiquities more than one hundred years old, such as inscriptions, coins and engraved seals; objects of ethnological interest; property of artistic interest; rare manuscripts and incunabula, old books, documents and publications of special interest (historical, artistic, scientific, literary, etc.); postage, revenue and similar stamps; archives, including sound, photographic and cinematographic archives; articles of furniture more than one hundred years old and old musical instruments.

More information on the events: