Measures against the Illicit Trade in Cultural Objects: The Emerging Strategy in Britain

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The editor's cri de coeur (Editorial, Antiquity 78 (2004), 253) about Iraq and to the UK's attitude to trade in illicit antiquities is pessimistic--at least in theory. The UK Government has made considerable strides in the past few years to curb the illicit trafficking in looted antiquities and thereby reduce the threat of destruction to cultural sites both in this country and worldwide. The globalisation of tourism and organised crime, together with the development of new technology, have revolutionised the means of detecting and looting archaeological sites. Far from injecting hard currency into hard-pressed local economies, local people usually receive very little in return for destroying their own cultural heritage. Asset-stripping this finite resource is, by definition, unsustainable in economic terms. The recent reports of damage to the ancient sites of Afghanistan and Iraq, where the looting of rich but vulnerable landscapes forms part of the emergency cash economy in the aftermath of conflict, reinforces the importance of the anti-illicit trade programme being developed by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS).

The scale of the problem has been eloquently set out by Lord Renfrew, who is unsparing in his condemnation of the violent separation of major archaeological finds from their geographical and social context (Renfrew 2000). We are also now more aware of the link between the trafficking in antiquities and other illegal and indeed organised criminal activities, notably drug smuggling, money laundering and the corruption of impoverished bureaucracies overseas (Brodie et al. 2000: 16-17).

Meanwhile, London, by virtue of its long-established marketplace, has become known as a centre of the global supply network in stolen and unlawfully removed cultural property. Here the pattern of movement and dispersal through a chain of dealers is a regular practice and details of provenance can become lost in the process. Licit and illicit antiquities become hopelessly mixed, and looted artefacts acquire a 'patina of legitimacy' (to use Renfrew's phrase) since they can ultimately be sold, without provenance, by dealers and auction houses. Despite the many positive steps towards self-regulation, it is widely acknowledged that many antiquities surface on the London market without any declared previous history or archaeological context.

In 2000 the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee of the House of Commons (equivalent to a US Congressional Committee), collected evidence for a report on Cultural Property: Return and Illicit Trade. The inquiry reviewed the positions of national governments, archaeological bodies, the antiquities trade, journalists, cultural groups, police, and other law enforcement agencies. The Government welcomed the Select Committee's recommendations for pro-active measures to prevent the UK being used as a haven for the illicit traffic in cultural property.

In response to calls from archaeologists and the legitimate art trade, the Department for Culture (DCMS) established, in the Spring of 1999, an Illicit Trade Advisory Panel (ITAP) under Norman Palmer, Professor of Commercial Law at University College London, to review both legislative and non-legislative options for action. The Panel's membership was drawn from the worlds of archaeology, museums and the art trade. Their Report, published in December 2000 (Palmer 2000) marked a very significant landmark in developing public policy in this area, not least because it represented, for the first time, a consensus between all those groups interested in the trade in cultural objects on practical measures to improve the current situation. The UK Government has favoured a 'bottom-up' approach aimed at aiming the support of the art market through offering participation in the policy development process, rather than imposing new regulations upon it. The fact that the British Art Market Federation and the British Antiquities Dealers Association were both involved in the formulation of a new regulatory framework gives added strength to the force of Government action. …