UNESCO, EU and art market fight against illicit trafficking of cultural objects

From the UNESCO-Homepage, published March 28, 2018

When it comes to the global art market, Europe is reportedly the largest exporter of art and antiquities, and the second largest importer.  While most of the estimated USD 14.6 billion European trade is licit or “clean”, there is no doubt that it also falls victim to organized crime, money laundering and terrorist financing as a means for generating illicit proceeds. 

In an effort to address the situation, UNESCO, EU Member States and art market representatives joined other international organizations, NGOs and experts at UNESCO Headquarters on 20 and 21 March for the conference “Engaging the European Art Market in the fight against the illicit trafficking of cultural property.”

“The EU is more committed than ever, especially in this 2018 European Year for Cultural Heritage, to strengthening legal and cooperation frameworks to stop illicit trafficking, and to supporting countries directly affected,” said Rupert Schlegemilch, Head of the EU Delegation to the OECD and UNESCO.

The multi-stakeholder approach to combatting illicit trafficking of arts and antiquities is imperative, and becoming stronger. The importance of reinforcing due diligence conduct in the European art trade in particular is a key element of this fight.

“This is the first time we bring representatives from the public and private sectors from EU Member States to bolster dialogue and cooperation to fight against illicit trafficking of cultural property, where cooperation with the art market in particular is key,” explained Mechtild Rössler, UNESCO’s Assistant Director-General for Culture, ai.

Illicit art is being detected as objects make their way in, through, and out of Europe, and these objects are making their way into the European licit market.  The black market trade is hard to trace and quantify, and preventive and tracking measures especially need to be strengthened. “We need more dedicated public prosecutors and experts analyzing trafficking, we need standardization of documentation, especially for provenance, and we need harmonization of EU art crime laws,” said Lynda Alberston, CEO, Association for Research into Crimes against Art (ARCA).

The art market, including dealers, collectors and auction houses, plays an important role in this fight, and is increasingly working together with national, regional and international authorities. The legal, professional and moral obligation to ensure the market is trading in licit cultural objects cannot be underestimated. According to Catherine Chadelat, President of the Conseil des Ventes Volontaires (CVV) in France, the regulations, systems of verification and legal operations in place for public auction houses can work if followed well. Staff and commissaries need to be trained in checking provenance, auction houses can send their catalogues to experts for verification. “If something is amiss, we work with the authorities and have the power to suspend a sale,” she said.

These due diligence measures are essential for the art market. One must look carefully at who the seller is and their reputation, the physical object and its provenance, and the nature of the transaction. Checking export and import certificates, databases for stolen objects like those of INTERPOL or the Italian Carabinieri, or the ICOM Red Lists, are also measures for due diligence.  Swindlers are deceptive, but dealers know that their due diligence is imperative to avoid risks and uphold their reputations. “It is in the interest of dealers to work only in the licit trade because their business depends on it,” said Erika Bochereau, General Secretary of the International Federation of Dealer Association (CINOA).

Codes of conduct in the art market are being strengthened and applied through self-regulation, yet sensitizing and building the capacities of relevant market stakeholders on the topic of due diligence still have a ways to go. Martin Wilson, British Art Market Federation (BAMF), stressed “education of the art market”, and noted that both the market and the general public need to understand better the situations of, for example, illicit excavations in Syria or Iraq, and the laws that have been put in place to prevent trafficking of antiquities. He applauded the increased cooperation between institutions, national authorities, and the art market in recent years.

The meeting was a rare opportunity to review with the art market the legal systems in place, for example the UNESCO 1970 Convention combatting illicit trafficking of cultural property, the UNIDROIT 1995 Convention (link is external), and the regulations specific to European Union, as well as the tools available to facilitate due diligence obligations. Moreover, it became apparent that a broader approach to due diligence is welcomed – one that also includes other international organizations like the OECD.

The European Commission and UNESCO, as part of their joint project “Engaging the European Art Market in the fight against the illicit trafficking of cultural property”, which included this meeting, are creating a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) in cooperation with 360Learning as an additional practical tool to build capacities of stakeholders in the fight against illicit trafficking, and due diligence in particular. They are also outlining other cultural property protection initiatives aimed at members of the judiciary, police units and custom officers.

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