Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum submitted by Professor Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn


  Since 1981 I have been the Disney Professor of Archaeology of the University of Cambridge, and since 1991 the Director of the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research. I am a Trustee of the British Museum, a Fellow of the British Academy (currently serving as Member of Council), a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London, and Member of the Ancient Monuments Advisory Committee for England. In October last year I was elected Secretary of the newly formed International Standing Committee on the Traffic in Illicit Antiquities.

  As a professional archaeologist I am concerned at the destruction of the world's heritage through the looting of archaeological sites, and am the author of Loot, Legitimacy and Ownership: the Ethical Crisis in Archaeology (Amsterdam, 1999; to be published in London later this year by Duckworth: hereafter cited as Loot).


  The most serious threat to the world's historic heritage today, probably exceeding the damage inevitably resulting from intensified farming practices and advancing urban development, is the deliberate looting of archaeological sites for commercial gain. By looting is meant the clandestine excavation of archaeological sites without adequate record or publication in order to provide antiquities for sale. In most countries of the world it is illegal to excavate ancient sites without an official government permit, and illegal also to export antiquities without an official export permit. Looting generally involves both. There is now a vast international market in "unprovenanced antiquities", this is to say without a securely documented site of origin, and without papers documenting the sequence of ownership from that point of origin to the current vendor. When antiquities are offered for sale without such documentation there has to be the presumption that they are likely to be the product of looting, the claim that they come from an "old collection" or from the attic of a deceased uncle is common but implausible without corroboration.


  It should be clearly understood that the loss to the heritage is primarily one of information. When artefacts are found on an archaeological excavation in a well stratified context they and the associated finds can add greatly to our knowledge of the human past. That is essentially what archaeology is about: the production of such knowledge and its publication. Removed from their context they are no more than interesting objects which lack, however, the power to tell us much more about the past (see Loot pp 12-17: example of the Tomb of Philip of Macedon).

  The urgent need therefore is to stop the looting process. It is in order to deter looting and the subsequent traffic in unprovenanced antiquities that it is appropriate to return recently looted antiquities to their country of origin. In this country most museums now avoid the purchase of unprovenanced antiquities, and many follow the policy adopted by the British Museum (quoted Loot Appendix 5). This is to decline to acquire antiquities (even by gift or bequest) unless these can be shown to have left their country of origin legally, or can be securely documented as having been known prior to 1970, the year of the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property (quoted Loot Appendix I).


  To most archaeologists it is the continuing destruction of the world's heritage through the ongoing looting of archaeological sites which constitutes the current crisis. The ultimate destination of antiquities and other cultural property which left their country of origin much earlier, for instance prior to the Second World War, seems a secondary question, sometimes indeed a political question. The prime objective should be to stop the destruction caused by the looting of antiquities now. That applies as much to British antiquities as to those originating overseas. It is this which underlies the need for some control of the shameless sale of unprovenanced antiquities which continues in the markets of the world, notably London.


  It should be noted that the concerns for the world's historic heritage relate specifically to the looting and sale of antiquities, illicitly dug out of the ground (or in some cases removed from standing ancient monuments). The same concerns do not necessarily apply to cultural objects or cultural property in general (although these too give rise to their own concerns). As noted above it is not the change of ownership or location which is the prime concern, but the destruction of context and the loss of information through the looting of sites. There is therefore a strong case for considering separately the case of antiques from that of paintings, manuscripts and other works of art. The illegal traffic of the latter may be undesirable on the grounds of retaining the national patrimony. The illegal traffic in antiquities has not only this consequence but the much more serious one of destroying all hope of using the archaeological resource to give more information about the human past.

  The illicit trade in unprovenanced antiquities has a damaging effect upon the reputation of the much wider legitimate trade in cultural property.


  It can certainly be argued that the sale of antiquities has in recent years given the art market in London a bad name. After unfavourable publicity Sotheby's decided in 1998 to abandon its auctions of antiquities in London. There are widespread concerns at the scale of the out-of-court settlement reported in The Sunday Times as in excess of £20 million, paid to the Marquess of Northampton by his former lawyers Peter Mimpriss and Allen and Overy in respect of their failure to represent his interest properly in advising him in the acquisition of the Sevso Treasure (an affair in which fraud was alleged in relation to the procurement of fake export licences for this important collection of unprovenanced late Roman silverware). Although there are antiquities dealers of long-standing in this country who would never knowingly handle stolen goods, it is regrettably the case that much of the material which they offer for sale is without documented provenance. The presumption must be, in the lack of evidence to the contrary, that most unprovenanced pieces are the product of illicit excavations, although they will often be represented as having past through the hands of several owners, so that the illicit status of any specific piece may be difficult to establish. That is the Catch 22: antiquities from illicit excavations are by definition undocumented.

  It can be argued that it is the sale of unprovenanced antiquities which is giving the wider London market in cultural property a bad name, tarnishing by association the legitimate trade in Old Master paintings, furniture and other collectables.


  Naturally the source countries have responsibilities in this matter. Most of them have antiquities laws designed to prevent looting and illegal export, but in practice these are difficult to restrict. In recent years it is not only the historically favoured nations, such as Greece, Rome, Turkey, Egypt and Iraq which have lost great quantities of material through illicit export, and whose archaeological sites have been ravaged in the process.

  Very recently there has been a flow of antiquities from Thailand, Cambodia, China, Mali, Peru, Mexico, Guatemala, Cyprus and Afghanistan, to name but a few cases. It has become clear that the most effective means of diminishing the flow of illicit antiquities, and thereby discouraging the looting process, would be to end the public sale (and so far as possible the private sale) of unprovenanced antiquities. Most public institutions in the United Kingdom, as noted above, will neither acquire nor exhibit unprovenanced antiquities which have appeared on the market subsequent to 1970. The Royal Academy of Arts, which was publicly criticised some years ago for putting on exhibition the private collection of Mr George Ortiz (consisting in large measure of recently acquired antiquities without documented provenance) has subsequently adopted such an exhibition policy.

  Unfortunately the antiquities market in Britain remains effectively unregulated, and the Codes of Practice announced by dealers are little more than window-dressing. For while such dealers are scrupulous in returning goods documented as stolen (from a recognised prior owner) these Codes do not bear at all on the issue of unprovenanced material from illicit excavations which is, by definition, undocumented. Dealers in antiquities are generally reluctant to reveal the sources of their stock and the notion of "transparency" is unwelcome to them.


  Unfortunately, as Ministers have conceded in the House of Lords, it is not an offence in this country to offer publicly for sale antiquities which have been illicitly excavated and illegally exported from their country of origin (House of Lords Official Report, 17 February 1997, col WA34). Moreover the Government has recently decided not to subscribe to the two principal international conventions which seek to restrict the illicit trade: the 1970 UNESCO Convention, cited above, and the 1995 UNIDROIT convention on the International Return of Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects. (It should be noted that neither convention would have retrospective effect, prior to the date of its ratification by the UK.)


  The matter is no longer simply one of the import of illicit antiquities into Britain from countries overseas. There is now a steady outflow of antiquities originating within Britain. And while it is illegal to export these without an export licence there are numerous examples of such cases. In general the Treasure Laws work well (and apply primarily to objects of gold and silver), and the Portable Antiquities Voluntary Recording scheme is providing much useful information. But there are still cases where important finds go abroad without licence. The Icklingham Bronzes, now in the New York Collection of Leon Levy and Shelby White, represent a case in point, as do the missing objects from the Salisbury Hoard, an important find of bronze artefacts illicitly excavated by "nighthawks" (metal detectorists operating with the permission of the landowner, by night) and subsequently dispersed through the usual network of dealers, all acting in "good faith" (see I M Stead, The Salisbury Hoard, Stroud, Tempus, 1998). Without the support of the UNESCO or UNIDROIT Conventions there are no evident procedures by which the UK Government can seek the return of such objects or (more importantly) discourage further looting in this country and further illicit export of British antiquities.


  After more than two year's delay the UK Government recently announced its decision not to ratify the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. The delay, and the objections, are believed to be the product of the Lord Chancellor's Department. But the two cautionary legal arguments so far made public (there has been no reasoned announcement, just a brief Written Answer in the House of Commons) appear to lack substance.

  The first, that it is not the practice in British law to pay compensation when stolen objects are returned by an innocent purchaser (required under Article 7(b)(ii)), is belied by the obligation to compensate a dispossessed good faith purchaser under Article 7 of the Return of Cultural Objects Regulations 1994 (1994 No 501), which apply to cultural objects unlawfully removed from the territory of an EU member state on or after 1 January 1993.

  The second relates to the provision under Article 5(b) to maintain "a list of important public and private cultural property". In reality this presents no substantial obstacle. A list can be constructed by what UNESCO calls the enumeration method. General types of object which it is desired to protect are described and listed. Such a method is used by Canada and Australia, both parties to the Convention. The United Kingdom already has such a list in the form of the categories of cultural material which are subject to export control and also to the Return of Cultural Objects Regulations 1994.

  As far as is known the Government did not consult with relevant professional bodies (such as the British Museum, the Museums Association, the British Academy) before making its decision and had it done so it would have found support for the UNESCO Convention.


  The Government has likewise announced its decision not to ratify the 1995 UNIDROIT Convention on the International Return of Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects. Again, the delay and the objections are believed to be the product of the Lord Chancellor's Department.

  The issue of compensation is dealt with in paragraph 10 above. Moreover it is not clear that in reaching its decision the Government understood the additional latitude (in relation to UK law) implied byArticle 9 of the UNIDROIT Convention which stipulates that a contracting state need not enforce compensation provisions if these run counter to customary law of that state.

  It is understood that the Government has expressed concern at the variation in the limitation times expressed in Article 3 of the Convention. It is pertinent to note, however, that the Convention, when ratified, will not be retroactive and thus will not bear upon objects already in the possession of individuals or institutions at that time. It will however imply greater caution in the exercise of "due diligence" in the subsequent acquisition of cultural objects.

  As far as is known the Government, once again, did not consult with relevant professional bodies before reaching its decision. In June 1988 the Chairman of the Conference of Directors, National Museums and Galleries, expressed to the Government the Conference's support of the UK acceding to the UNIDROIT Convention (House of Lords, Official Report, 28 February, col WA53).


  Because of the total lack of regulation in the United Kingdom of the public sale of illicit antiquities London occupies the regrettable position of one of the world's main clearing houses for the sale of looted antiquities. Britain is making absolutely no contribution to the worldwide protection of the archaeological and historic heritage, despite its high standing in the field of archaeology and the extent to which its museums have benefitted in earlier days when the traffic in antiquities may not have been the disreputable commercial operation which it has now become.

  While museums and academic organisations have in recent years developed clear ethical policies, and the Standing Conference on Portable Antiquities (initially a project of the Council for British Archaeology) has formulated a clear position, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport has shown no explicit concern at the continuing import and sale of looted antiquities, and in recent years has shown itself to be more sensitive to the interest of the commercial market than to the protection of the world's heritage.

  Although the UK Government's repudiation of the two principal international regulatory conventions in this field has been accompanied by expressions of good intention, there are no indications that the Government has given any thought to this matter and certainly it has neither formulated proposals nor undertaken consultations with professional bodies. Its rejection of the 1970 UNESCO Convention appears founded upon two misunderstandings upon which it has not sought external advice.

  It can indeed be argued that the situation is worsening, despite the welcome decision of Sotheby's to abandon auctions of antiquities in this country. Internet sales of antiquities are beginning to play a significant role. It is a cause for concern also and a sign of the current uncertain climate that Fortnum and Mason, the well-respected London store, has announced forthcoming sales of antiquities in March and April of which most, it is to be predicted, will lack documented provenance.

  On general ethical and conservationist grounds, since the world's historic heritage is a diminishing and irreplaceable resource, it is desirable that Britain should play some respectable role in this area, perhaps even a leadership role. It is much to be hoped that the Committee will give notice to this aspiration and urge the Government to develop a policy in this area and to devise some means of regulating the disreputable antiquities market in Britain, so that the reputation of the much larger art market is not further tarnished by association.


  (1)  That the Committee express grave concern at the damage to the world's historic heritage caused by the looting of archaeological sites worldwide, and by the consequent illicit traffic and (in Britain) unrestricted trade in unprovenanced antiquities.

  (2)  That the Committee give explicit recognition to the principle that the first concern should be to stop the looting now. That is to say that priority should be given to measures designed to discourage the continuing destruction of archaeological sites and the continuing traffic (specifically in the United Kingdom) in unprovenanced antiquities. Issues relating to the potential restitution to their country of origin of antiquities acquired prior to 1970 should be considered as less urgent.

  (3)  That the Committee advise the Government to take appropriate steps to discourage the import of unprovenanced antiquities into this country, the sale of such antiquities, their acquisition by institutions or private collectors, and (where applicable) their subsequent export.

  (4)  That the Committee advise the Government that the trade in unprovenanced antiquities represents a special problem (in view of the destruction of heritage sites which it encourages) and that this problem should be distinguished from the wider issues surrounding the trade in cultural property, which may not carry the same destructive consequences.

  (5)  That the Committee advise the Government that, in the absence of other evidence to the contrary, antiquities without securely documented provenance should be classified as "unprovenanced antiquities" and regarded as the likely product of illicit excavation and illegal export.

  (6)  That consideration be given to extending the territorial scope of the UK legislation relating to antiquities unlawfully removed from their country of origin within the European Community (The Return of Cultural Objects Regulations 1994: 1994 no 501) to give worldwide application, so that any member state of the United Nations could be treated on the same terms as is a "member state" within the Regulations.

  (7)  That the initiatives by the British Museum, the Museums Association and other bodies to decline to acquire antiquities whose documented history cannot be traced back before 1970 be welcomed, and that other institutions and private collectors be encouraged to adopt the same policy.

  (8)  That the adoption of a Code of Ethics in relation to the acquisition or display of antiquities be a condition for the public funding of any museum or gallery.

  (9)  That no unprovenanced antiquity without a documented history extending back prior to 1970 should be accepted by the Treasury in lieu of taxation liabilities arising from the decease of the owner ("Death Duties").

  (10)  That the Government be advised to re-examine the 1970 UNESCO Convention constructively with a view to overcoming any obstacles to its ratification.

  (11)  That the Government be advised to re-examine the 1995 UNIDROIT Convention constructively with a view to overcoming any obstacles to its ratification.

March 2000

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