An illicit international trade in objects of art and culture is steadily growing. Theft, looting, illicit importation and exportation of cultural objects are well-known practices, which often increase during periods of decreased security, such as wartime. This can be disastrous for archaeological objects: they will lose the context in which they are buried which is indispensable for their interpretation.
To better fight this trade, the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property of 1970, commonly referred to as UNESCO Convention 1970, was drafted. It is the pioneer and most broadly ratified international convention that exists on the issue of illicit trafficking in cultural property. The Convention clearly states that “the export and transfer of ownership of cultural property under compulsion arising directly or indirectly from the occupation of a country by a foreign power shall be regarded as illicit”.
It defines preventative measures State Parties should undertake, including:
- the creation of inventories, export certificates, monitoring trade, the imposition of penal or administrative sanctions, and educational campaigns.;
- the implementation of measures, consistent with national legislation, which prevent museums and similar institutions within their territories from acquiring cultural property originating in another State Party which has been illegally exported;
- prohibiting the import of stolen cultural property in another State Party to this Convention.
- States Parties undertake, at the request of the State Party of origin, to take appropriate steps to recover and return any such imported cultural property. This important provision covers only stolen inventoried objects (objects issuing from an illicit excavation or stolen from a private home are excluded).
- Once an object has been identified and found outside its country of origin, international cooperation is indispensable. The idea of strengthening cooperation among and between States Parties is present throughout the Convention: in case cultural patrimony is in jeopardy from pillage, the Convention provides a possibility for more specific undertakings such as a call for import and export controls.
The date of the Convention – 1970 – is usually taken as the date from which these provisions should be enforced. Objects illegally removed before this date are not covered.
It should be clear that without a demand of illicit traded artefacts in the market countries, including the western countries, the need to supply these objects would be of course much lower.
A UNESCO Information Kit elaborating on The Fight Against The Illicit Trafficking Of Cultural Objects can be downloaded here.
Full details of the Convention can be found here.