Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20- 41)



  20. Is that entirely independent? There is not a sort UNESCO one; that is just as it is per item.
  (Mr Mason) No. In the case for example when the Royal Academy undertook the Africa 1995 exhibition there were some cases where we were worried about the provenance of objects and in fact we were not able to extend government indemnity there. That option is there, but most museums, certainly responsible ones, would check. This does not of course prevent private collectors from not checking but most museums, contemporary museums, certainly in this country would deal very responsibly with that. I am afraid there are other cases where one has to say things are coming out of museums and coming onto the market, but that is something museums in this country would need to be very aware of; not from our museums I hasten to say but museums overseas.

  21. I did think the Lindisfarne thing had been resolved, that it was going back to the North East.
  (Mr Mason) I was asked whether I knew of any examples. I understand the Prime Minister has said that it will go back.

  22. In the end, if things do belong elsewhere, that is going to be a bigger issue over the next 20 or 30 years. People will want to claim what is actually theirs.
  (Mr Mason) There will be additional claims, that is absolutely right, which is the very reason why your study is very timely and I hope our guidelines are also very timely to give people some help when there will probably be increasing interest in this whole and very complex area.

  23. Why are we not a signatory to the UNESCO documentation on all this? Why have we resisted it? What is special about Britain that we cannot join something which most of the other countries in the world have joined?
  (Mr Mason) I am not the Secretary of State. I do not know the answer.

  24. I know, but professionally.
  (Mr Mason) In our evidence to you we have hoped that the UK can find some way of acceding to both the UNESCO Convention and UNIDROIT because the MGC and the Museums Association have urged all museums to recognise those two UNESCO statements even if the United Kingdom has not signed up to them. If it is a problem with the UK legislation not being quite compatible with it, then perhaps we ought to look at some ways of finding a solution to that.


  25. Is there an argument for advocating, or would it be far too clumsy, complicated and perhaps even impracticable, that when any art object is sold—then again you would have to define the art object—it should have a certificate of provenance attached to it? A few months ago, when I was in Israel, I bought from an extremely reputable dealer whom I trust entirely a painting by a famous naif Israeli artist and I have no idea where that came from. I trusted him. When, a few months before, I was in California and I bought a pair of cufflinks made out of ancient Roman coins, I received a certificate from the Israeli Department of Antiquities. Curiously they came from that part of the world testifying to the provenance of the coins from which those cufflinks were made. Again, international conventions are often not worth the paper they are signed on, but is there any argument for having either a statute in this country or attempting to secure an international convention for the attachment of certificates of provenance to works of art?
  (Mr Mason) I suspect there is an argument for it but practically I am not so sure. I should just take up one point you made, which you did correct slightly. When you said "art objects" I should emphasise that this is not just a question of art, this is a question of all objects and of course much of the illicit trade takes place not in art objects but in a whole range of other objects which might be of museum interest. Provenance is certainly well tracked but I am not sure whether the logbook idea which is an extremely attractive one is practical.
  (Ms Weeks) The idea of a logbook is obviously an excellent idea but it would be very difficult because only in the last ten years or so have people become aware of the importance of provenance and the importance of doing thorough research. In many cases it would be difficult to establish provenance back as far as one would want to and of course there would be cost implications.
  (Mr Mason) I am sure one would also find people reversing the clock or whatever the museum equivalent of that is. Even if you have a certificate validated by the Israeli Government, I am not quite sure I would know what an original certificate validated by the Israeli Government actually looked like. If people can fake objects, I am sure they can fake certificates with even more ease. I am not in any way suggesting yours is fake but that is the problem, unless you have some clear booklet, like a logbook for a car, and to attach that to every single object would be an extremely cumbersome piece of administration, attractive as it is as an idea.

  Derek Wyatt: You could do that electronically on a portable, could you not?

Mr Maxton

  26. But when does an antique become an antique?
  (Mr Mason) That is true and when does an object go into a museum? Increasingly as I get older I find things in museums which I still do have at home. Museums are filled with a huge array of things of vast value but also down to very small things which are incredibly important locally for social history reasons. To attach a logbook to that would probably be very, very complicated.


  27. It is a very interesting question which Mr Maxton asks and it very much affects the question of definition. For example, at the Rusholme and Fallowfield Civic Society jumble sale a few years ago I bought for 40p a Charles and Diana wedding mug which I think probably now is a highly desirable collectible but I bought it from a jumble sale.
  (Mr Mason) It probably did come with a small certificate at the time too.

Mrs Golding

  28. How could the law be clarified or simplified or strengthened or new laws be made to help you to get out of this kind of tangle which everything seems to be in? I realise nothing could be done to solve everything, but is it possible to make some alterations which would be helpful?
  (Mr Mason) A clear definition of what is a collection would be very helpful and some sort of legal status about that. That is not to say that collection has then become so watertight that acquisition and disposal are not possible. That would be very helpful. Certainly a recognition of the international conventions which occur here, which actually therefore require this country to participate in that, would be very helpful. Those conventions, because they are international, are only as good as the world signing up to them and two or three countries signing up is not really going to be of great importance. Beyond that it is quite difficult to think how. I think that the next stage, which might lead to some kind of need for legislation, but one would need to look at that as it emerged, should be the point I was making earlier that some kind of central point at which requests were logged and some kind of history, in a way a provenance of claim almost, was built up. So one would actually be able to see where claims are made, build up some kind of case history and it would be very, very helpful. Emerging from that might be the need for some kind of legislation. At the moment the evidence is not being gathered centrally so it is very much by hearsay and if people in a small museum get a claim there is no requirement on them to log that claim in any way. We are not really on top of the level of claim which is going on. About two years ago there was a claim made to all museums for return of items from the Cook Islands. Every individual museum did not know that claim had been made to all 2,000 museums in the rest of the country. Some way of logging that and looking at that and trying to deal with that in a way which would not stop the individual museum dealing with it in its own way, but enable them to seek advice, would be very helpful. In terms of immediate legislation ...
  (Ms Weeks) Our feeling is that there is no blanket solution and that each case has to be dealt with individually.

  29. If you had this central logging system, how could you run it? Would you want to do something internationally or would you want to do something by countries' agreements to do their own?
  (Mr Mason) There are two points to this. The first is that you would need to do your own logging for claims within your own country. As far as the illicit trade is concerned, it is an international matter because one needs to be tracking down objects which may have been discovered to be illicitly removed to make sure that perhaps when they do attempt to enter another country that can be prevented. ICOM, the International Council of Museums, is doing some remarkably good work in conjunction with the MA in this country in terms of working on the illicit trade, producing publications and so on. One of the questions I raised with the Secretary General of ICOM at our seminar last week was whether producing publications on this was not a bit late and in fact the very issue Mr Wyatt raised about information technology, which could perhaps enable us to be on the case much, much more quickly. We are setting up a website dealing with matters concerned with restitution at MGC. There is no reason why ICOM could not run a similar thing and there could then be a much greater understanding and knowledge of the illicit trade, objects which have been illegally removed and so on. That raises one other issue which I do not think is one for legislation but is one which is very important in all this and that is the question of education. It is very important not only that museums are educated in what they should do and their trustees are educated in what they should do, but actually individuals are educated, customs officers are educated, governments are educated. It was also raised last week that often when you go to countries abroad you see cases at the airport telling you about illicit trade, perhaps in butterflies or in skins. It does not tell you that if you pick up a small piece of mosaic from the floor of a temple in Greece, that actually may not to you seem terribly important, because what is one stone. But if 200,000 visitors a year pick up a stone from that temple, that is not quite illicit trade but it is in a way; it is a corporate agreement to illicit trade of the whole mosaic which can never be put back together again. Education is absolutely critical. Again not an issue for legislation but it is something which governments, both internationally and nationally, could take a leading role in.

Mr Faber

  30. I do not want to go on about the issue of provenance but the impression I have had in our informal briefings is that very often the provenance is not clearly tracked and that perhaps you are being a little over-confident about the degree of provenance. Indeed you, Ms Weeks, then slightly contradicted it by saying that the provenance is very often difficult to trace back further than ten years; ten years is nothing in the great scheme of things.
  (Ms Weeks) What I meant was, in detail.
  (Mr Mason) It will depend from object to object. In many cases it is works of art which have perhaps been in this country for some considerable time and the ownership is known about and the sale is well tracked. It is objects which have arrived from overseas more recently where there may be some question in the past, but also in the case of many smaller objects in museums. We must remember that in museums there are thousands, indeed millions and millions of objects, many of which are quite small and many of which may have been acquired in all sorts of ways. Most of our great regional museums are filled with collections because people who had served overseas or been abroad came back with a collection which they then donated to their museum. You probably could not expect those people to have cared too much about the provenance of the objects they acquired even if they probably had acquired them legally. However, the museum, having acquired it, will then be careful to make those kinds of records. A good example would be the necklace which was returned from Exeter to the aboriginal people in Tasmania. That had been entered into their catalogue and documented from the moment it arrived. In fact because it was entered in the way it was, somewhat casually one has to say between a shell, a reptile, a fossil and then this necklace, the fact is that it was recorded at that stage and would be known. It is piecemeal because there are so many different museums in this country, large, small, well endowed, struggling. It is difficult for all museums to have a standard to which they themselves would wish to aspire.

  31. In the foreword to your Restitution and Repatriation document you say that you hope museums will become pro-active in considering how they handle requests for returns. Is this because you have evidence that they have not been to date or are you merely trying to tie it all in together?
  (Mr Mason) Our evidence would be that they have really just not thought about this as an issue and when therefore a claim has come they have gone into a bit of a state, not quite knowing what to do. The temptation has either been to do nothing and hope that it will go away, or just slam the door saying "No way". What we are saying is that museums, before they get claims, really ought to start thinking about what they would do if they did get a claim and perhaps to accept that they would use these guidelines as the way to go forward. Again I come back to the fact that the vast majority of museums in this country are very, very small and therefore do not really expect this kind of thing in the normal run of things. That is why they have not been pro-active. It is not because they have been anxiously against restitution but they have not actually been thinking about it.
  (Ms Weeks) Mark O'Neill was making the point about the Lakota Ghost Dance Shirt last week at the seminar that because there was no policy then, they had to make things up on the hoof. They had to decide exactly what they felt about this, which was why they felt having the guidelines would be extremely useful for them. That is one of the reasons it took so long to settle that particular claim, because they were trying to work out exactly what the framework was first before they could actually look at the claim.

  32. That highlights an inconsistency which the Government has pointed out to us in the DCMS document which is that national collections, national museums, are very strongly guided by legal guidance as to what they can dispose of, whereas of course for anything in non-national institutions there are no fixed guidelines but presumably that is more an advisory process.
  (Mr Mason) Most museums would have their own acquisition and disposal policies which would have to be approved by the MGC as part of the registration scheme, but with the exception which I shall come to in a moment, there are no legal limitations on return of objects.

  33. Would you like to see that?
  (Mr Mason) The one limitation is that if it is written into your memorandum and articles and you are a registered charity, but for some reason you cannot dispose of any part of your collection, you would have to get Charity Commission agreement. Which way would the law go in your case?

  34. I am asking you but I assume that the law which covers national institutions would be extended.
  (Mr Mason) That would be a limitation if that were the case because it does make it more difficult to return. Each claim should be looked at individually and the law should not automatically preclude—

  35. Would you like to see it relaxed?
  (Mr Mason) I would like to see it in circumstances that the law could be relaxed. The circumstances would need to be well controlled and proved, but just to have a blanket no, it is a problem.

  36. Would you be happy to see the national collections operate on the same advisory basis as all the many small ones?
  (Mr Mason) No, you could still do it within legislation but you would need perhaps to give the final say to the Secretary of State to make a decision as to whether an object should be returned. For the reasons we have been discussing earlier the world has moved on considerably since some of this legislation was prepared. If things have been acquired illegally then it is wrong that the law itself prevents that injustice being put right.

  37. Your document is purely about restitution and repatriation. Are you happy that now that museums have good guidelines about the acceptance of illicit artefacts, that is no longer happening? What advice, what help do you give to museums about checking on provenance and checking that they are not coming into their collection—
  (Mr Mason) We urge them to follow the two laws which we have just talked about, UNIDROIT and UNESCO Conventions.

  38. Seeing them enforced legally would be a great help.
  (Mr Mason) It would be a great help; yes, it certainly would.

  39. In our most recent other inquiry into libraries we heard some concern about the formation of the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (MLAC) and about it perhaps being a little too diverse, in that bringing the three interests together under one umbrella might dilute some of the interest in the individual bodies. You have a concern that in their consultation document there is no mention of having one single point of reference for full restitution. What would you like to see them do?
  (Mr Mason) We should like to see the MLAC continue the work that we have been doing over the last two to three years which has included the creation of a website, working very closely with the National Museum Directors' Conference on Nazi spoliation, working very closely with the Standing Committee on Restitution.

  40. How is it going to work? Are you going to be incorporated into the MLAC? How is it working at a technical level?
  (Mr Mason) It is an entirely new body. The Museums & Galleries Commission and the Library and Information Commission cease operation at the end of next week. The new body will start work on3 April and it will incorporate all staff from the MGC, except for me, and Ms Weeks who is working as a consultant. It is not precisely clear how much executive function it will maintain and they are looking at outsourcing a number of the things we currently do which are described as executive. It wants to become a very much more strategic body. This is one of these issues: is it executive or is it strategic? This is important work, there does need to be a national focus for this and by national I actually mean a UK national focus. We very much hope that we shall be able to urge the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council to take on this responsibility.

  41. You are being very diplomatic but I get the sense that you are also expressing a slight concern that the focus may be lost.
  (Mr Mason) I am only expressing a concern because of the uncertainty. There is a huge amount of uncertainty about a whole range of things but this is one of them and there is a real danger that what I believe is very important work that the MGC has been doing may fall down the gap between the MGC and the MLAC.

  Mr Faber: That is exactly what many of the library organisations are concerned about as well.

  Chairman: Thank you very much indeed; that has got us off to a very good start. Definitions are a very good way of starting. Thank you very much.

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