Newspaper article International New York Times

Growing Alarm on Cultural Theft ; Officials Call for New Laws to Curb Persistent Demand in Market for Antiquities

Newspaper article International New York Times

Growing Alarm on Cultural Theft ; Officials Call for New Laws to Curb Persistent Demand in Market for Antiquities

Article excerpt

Antiquities around the world, but especially in war zones, are increasingly under pressure, leading preservationists to call for more protections.

They have always been among the spoils of war, alluring in their beauty, tantalizing in their value to dealers, museums and collectors. And after a decade of turmoil, and a longer stretch of willful destruction, the world's antiquities are in such jeopardy that preservationists are sounding a screeching alarm.

At a gathering in Berlin last week, 250 experts discussed ways to help Syria, Iraq and Egypt, as well as Afghanistan and other threatened regions, protect cultural property.

But while the fighting in the region has been devastating to scores of heritage sites -- decay, negligence and religious fervor also have taken a heavy toll -- the destruction is also driven by the persistent demand for looted goods, European experts said.

Many participants called for tightening laws to make it more difficult for the very wealthy to acquire tangible bits of world history. Or, as the German commissioner for culture, Monika Grutters, put it, while proposing far-reaching new German curbs on the murky antiquities market, "the cultural heritage of all humanity" is something everyone should help preserve.

This month, Irina Bokova, the Bulgarian who heads Unesco, the United Nations' organization in Paris for education, science and culture, appealed for new curbs on billions of dollars earned illegally in antiquities. She wants a ban on such trade with Syria and Iraq, and urged the creation of culture safety zones in Syria, starting with the Umayyad Mosque in Aleppo.

Emily K. Rafferty, the president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, joined members of the Louvre, the Berlin Pergamon Museum and the British Museum to call in Paris for a fight against illicit trafficking and destruction.

Carrying off art treasures has long been part of war and the assertion of cultural superiority. The perhaps most well-known dispute flared anew this month when the British Museum -- which has long asserted that the Parthenon frieze taken from Greece in the early 19th century could not be returned to Athens or split up -- lent one statue from it to the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia. Russia itself has long refused to return to Germany art treasures seized by Soviet troops in World War II.

Germany, of course, has its own painful history of the Nazis confiscating art from mostly Jewish owners, and from museums. That, and the recent discovery of a trove of art amassed by a Nazi-era dealer and kept secret for decades by the dealer's reclusive son, Cornelius Gurlitt, have helped spur a proposal for what experts say would be the most far-reaching laws regulating the booming market in cultural property.

Ms. Grutters outlined plans for a new law that would require documented provenance for any object entering or leaving Germany, long among the laxest of regulators of the art market. Among other measures, dealers would be required to show a valid export permit from the source of the piece's origins when entering Germany.

Countries like Switzerland, and European Union members like France, Italy and Britain, have in recent years considerably tightened their rules, and are now re-examining them. …

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