Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Seventh Report


The nature and scale of the illicit trade

6. The 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property covers a range of activities that can be viewed as part of the "illicit trade", not all of which are illegal in the United Kingdom.

7. The same UNESCO Convention refers to cultural property as meaning property which, "on religious or secular grounds, is specifically designated by each State as being of importance for archaeology, prehistory, history, literature, art or science and which belongs to the following categories ...". The Convention then lists several categories, such as "products of archaeological excavations", "cinematographic archives" and "articles of furniture more than one hundred years old". The concept of cultural property is therefore extremely broad and subjective, in that it is assumed that importance is to be defined by a State. Objects that can be subject to trading restrictions or prohibitions range from human remains to postage stamps.[17]

8. The illicit trade can be divided into at least three distinct categories. First, there is illegal export of an object by its rightful owner. In some cases this can arise from a failure to possess a relevant export licence.[18] Countries with particularly extensive controls on exports, such as Italy, suffer from the problem of rightful owners seeking illegal exportation because objects can command a better price in a foreign, more open market.[19] The second element is the trade in identified objects stolen from an identified owner, such as a private individual or a museum. The third element is the trade in objects illicitly removed from archaeological sites or monuments. Such objects have an owner and a victim—usually a State or a landowner—but their entry into and passage through the trade is more difficult to trace and quantify.[20]

9. The scale of the illicit trade taken as a whole is said to be very considerable. According to the Museums Association, "as an underground, secretive activity, it is impossible to attach a firm financial value to the illicit trade in cultural material. Estimates of its worldwide extent vary from £150 million up to £2 billion per year."[21] Detective Chief Superintendent John Coles of the Metropolitan Police Service identified a similar range of estimates—from $300 million to $6 billion.[22] The European Association of Archaeologists attributed to Interpol an estimate that the worldwide trade in cultural property was worth about $4.5 billion annually, compared with about $1 billion ten years ago.[23]

10. The possible scale of the illicit trade worldwide is sometimes conveyed by comparison with certain illegal markets. Major General Conforti stated that "illegal trafficking of cultural goods is second only to the 'black market' of illegal drugs and weapons".[24] He also suggested that "the profit deriving from the illegal movement of works of art is second only to the profits of drug trafficking".[25] The suggestion that "the illicit trade in cultural property is third only in value to drugs and arms" has also been attributed to Interpol.[26]

11. Such suggestions and comparisons about scale all appear to relate to the illicit trade in cultural property taken as a whole, comprising the different elements to which we have already referred. The Antiquities Dealers Association argued that public suggestions that the trade in illicitly excavated material amounted to some £3 billion per annum and was second only to the trade in drugs were "clearly nonsense".[27] The Association estimated the worldwide turnover of the official trade in classical antiquities from Europe and the Mediterranean at £200-£300 million a year.[28] It suggested that the licit trade in antiquities was much smaller than was widely believed, and the illegitimate trade smaller still.[29]

12. There may have been a tendency to overstate the value of illicitly-traded objects of one kind from one particular geographic area, but there are a number of individual statistics which lend some credibility to higher estimates of the overall worldwide illicit trade in its many guises. Although it is hazardous to extrapolate from domestic insurance claims, there have been estimates of the value of collectable items stolen annually within the United Kingdom of £300 million or more.[30] Even assuming that only a small proportion of such collectable items constitutes cultural property likely to enter an international market, that figure indicates the worldwide scale of stolen cultural goods likely to be susceptible to entry into the illicit trade. Readily identifiable cultural goods are often likely to be transferred across international boundaries because of the reduced likelihood of detection and the increased ease of sale.[31]

13. In addition to the theft of insured cultural property, there are many cases which illustrate the scale of removal of antiquities worldwide. Three examples provide pointers to this. First, one arrest in Germany in 1997 brought to light hundreds of icons stolen from 46 churches in Cyprus.[32] Second, a police raid on a villa in Sicily in 1998 revealed antiquities thought to be from one site worth more than £20 million.[33] Third, it has been suggested that about 1,000 pieces of pottery, worth about $10 million, are smuggled out of the Mayan region of Central America every month.[34]

14. The illicit trade in cultural property covers an immense spectrum of activities—from failure to obtain proper export licences by rightful owners to conscious smuggling of stolen or looted objects. At the latter end of the spectrum, there are indications of links between participants in the trade and those engaged in other organised criminal activities. First, it has been suggested that the same routes and methods are used for the smuggling of cultural property and of illicit drugs.[35] Second, evidence suggests that illicitly-traded cultural property is employed as "currency" in transactions between criminals, transactions sometimes also involving drugs and arms.[36] Finally, there are instances where the illegal acquisition of cultural property has been associated with violent crime.[37]

15. All evidence about illicit activities will be sketchy in nature; all figures linked to such activities will be speculative. However, there is sufficient evidence to consider speculation about a very significant worldwide illicit trade in cultural property, including criminal elements linked to other illegal activities, to be not without foundation. The value of that trade taken as a whole and composed as it is of quite different elements is substantial. However, the problem of the illicit trade should be measured not only in monetary terms but also in terms of its impact on cultural heritage and on the legitimate trade in cultural property.

The looting of archaeological sites

16. A proportion of the total value of the illicit trade in cultural property results from the looting of archaeological sites. That proportion is a matter of considerable dispute, but the value does not bear directly on the damage done. As the United Kingdom Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works put it: "the destruction of the archaeological record is the same regardless of the monetary value of the artefacts recovered. Loss of knowledge results and is unaffected by the financial value of what is retrieved."[38]

17. The looting of archaeological sites goes back to ancient times.[39] In its primary concern for objects, early archaeology had some characteristics associated with looting today. Modern archaeology, however, relies upon a far greater range of techniques and places a far greater emphasis upon information. Archaeology is now most concerned with the context of finds, with the inter-relationship between objects and their location.[40] Because of the emphasis placed by archaeologists on context, their interests and those of collectors of antiquities are more divergent than in the past.[41]

18. Many archaeologists regard the acquisition of objects through unrecorded excavation as inherently damaging and antithetical to the proper purposes of archaeology. The principal concern of Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn, Professor of Archaeology at the University of Cambridge, was the damage done not by the illicit trade per se, but by the looting of sites to acquire objects for the trade: "once they are out of the ground, in a way the damage is done; you cannot put the toothpaste back in the tube".[42] That comment was echoed by the European Association of Archaeologists, which stated that "it is the destruction of sites that concerns archaeologists, not the ownership of antiquities".[43] Moreover, the damage done to a site lies not simply in the loss of contextual information: fragile materials and objects not deemed to be of sufficient worth may be destroyed in pursuit of a valuable object.[44]

19. The loss of both information and material through the destruction of sites involves the diminution of a finite and irreplaceable resource.[45] Evidence suggests that in some parts of the world the effects are devastating. According to Mr Vivian Davies, Keeper of Egyptian Antiquities at the British Museum,

"the destruction in countries like Egypt is catastrophic ... Massive destruction is being done to archaeological sites in Egypt on a daily basis. Objects are finding their way out through various laundering systems."[46]

Mali has more archaeological sites than any other country in Africa apart from Egypt, but only a handful of those sites has been properly investigated. A recent survey of 125 square miles discovered 834 sites, but also showed that 45 per cent had been looted, 17 per cent badly.[47] According to the United Kingdom Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works, "the destruction of the world's archaeological heritage threatens our potential to know anything substantive of whole civilisations".[48]

20. Evidence on the looting of archaeological sites is available from all over the world, but it is also to be found closer to home. Within the United Kingdom, there are three different legal systems relating to archeological finds. In Scotland, all newly-discovered archaeological objects are the property of the Crown and, in effect, a legal requirement to report such objects applies.[49] In viewing such finds as State property, Scotland is in line with much of the rest of the world.[50] In Northern Ireland, there is a statutory requirement for a finder of any archaeological object to report a find and it is an offence to excavate any land while searching for archaeological objects without a licence.[51]

21. In England and Wales, different arrangements apply. Removal of archaeological objects is not itself an offence unless those objects are taken from scheduled ancient monuments.[52] Most objects found belong to the landowner. Separate, and recently much improved, arrangements apply to "treasure", which is defined by its precious metal content, under which such finds are Crown property and must be reported, but the landowner, and the finder as appropriate, will usually be rewarded at market value.[53] Increasingly, finds of objects which do not constitute treasure are being reported under the Portable Antiquities Scheme, a voluntary procedure for declaring finds which covers Wales and some areas of England and which it is hoped to extend to all of England and Wales.[54]

22. In England and Wales, there are about 20,000 scheduled archaeological sites that can be the subject of illegal excavation.[55] Two examples illustrate the damage that can be done. From April 1989 to September 1993, the Roman site at Corbridge on Hadrian's Wall was subject to illegal metal detecting 24 separate times; on one occasion, up to 55 holes were dug on the site.[56] It is estimated that coins worth about £2 million were stolen from a site at Wanborough, near Guildford after discovery of the site in 1985. The prospects for understanding the linkage between the coin deposits and the religious purposes of the site were thereby destroyed.[57] Looting can take place beyond scheduled sites when objects are removed without the landowner's knowledge or consent. The Salisbury hoard—to one item of which we referred at the beginning of this Report—was removed, sold and dispersed without any benefit to the rightful owner. Efforts by a member of staff of the British Museum to trace the location and context of the discovery of the objects led to a successful prosecution for theft and the return of some of the looted objects to the rightful owner. Those endeavours also led to the discovery that objects of a chronological range of 2,200 years had deliberately been buried together, providing evidence of a unique example of antiquity collecting in antiquity.[58]

23. Many of the items in the Salisbury hoard were not returned to their rightful owner. Some had been exported to France, Japan, Germany and the USA.[59] This case illustrates that British antiquities form part of the international illicit trade.[60] Evidence for this comes also from the Wanborough site and the case of Romano-British bronze objects looted from Icklingham in Suffolk which subsequently appeared in a private collection in the United States of America.[61]

The illicit trade and the British art market

24. The illicit trade in cultural property matters because it entails and is linked to criminal activities. It also matters because it is associated with great and irreversible damage to the cultural heritage. And it matters because, as the British Art Market Federation said in evidence to us, it poses a genuine problem for the open and legitimate art market.[62] The aim of many of those concerned in the illicit trade is to infiltrate the legitimate art market and thereby secure maximum value for an object.[63] According to the Art Loss Register, items in the illicit trade "work their way up the chain of respectability until they achieve full market value".[64]

25. The British art market stands at or near the pinnacle of that chain of respectability. That market is of great economic value to this country. In 1998, art market sales in the United Kingdom totalled £3,288 million. The British market accounts for 52 per cent of total western European art sales and is growing faster than the western European market as a whole.[65] The British art market depends for its success on the standards and perceived standards of the participants in that market. As Mr James Ede of the Antiquities Dealers Association put it: "Our reputation is the most important thing to us that we have".[66] The integrity of the art market is crucial to its functioning.[67] As Sotheby's noted, "the auction houses have a strong business interest in the elimination of the illicit market".[68]

26. This Committee heard allegations that London is an important centre of the illicit trade in cultural property.[69] Major General Conforti claimed that a significant proportion of objects stolen in or illegally exported from Italy and subsequently traced were found on the British art market. London "auction houses are unknowingly used by art thieves to 'launder' items of illegal provenance".[70] Lord Renfrew was among those who argued that the London market was heavily involved in the process whereby looted antiquities without provenance entered the "legitimate" market, thereby acquiring a deceptive appearance of legitimacy which made their onward sale acceptable.[71]

27. Mr Charles Hill, a former officer in the Metropolitan Police Art and Antiques Squad, who gave evidence on behalf of the British Art Market Federation, accepted that "London is a centre of the stolen art market", but considered that London's role was prone to exaggeration.[72] The auction houses acknowledged that there were instances when items that might have been stolen or illegally exported found their way onto the London market: for example, of 168,704 lots offered for sale through Christie's in 1999 in the United Kingdom, about 69 were the subject of a claim arising from an alleged theft or illegal export.[73] Because auction house catalogues are widely circulated, there are prospects for such claims to be made; in such instances, lots are withdrawn.[74] The auction houses were adamant that such cases did not justify London's "relatively new image" as "a hot bed of illicit trade in works of art".[75]

28. Many participants in the British art market have undertaken, in a voluntary code of practice, "to the best of their ability, not to import, export or transfer the ownership" where they have "reasonable cause to believe" that "an imported object has been acquired in or exported from its country of export in violation of that country's laws" or that "an imported object was acquired dishonestly or illegally from an official excavation site or monument or originated from an illegal, clandestine or otherwise unofficial site". The code of practice states that any violations of it "will be rigorously investigated".[76] The Antiquities Dealers Association noted suggestions that London was a major centre for illicit antiquities, but stated that "the legitimate trade, both dealers and auctioneers, have made great efforts in the last decade to distance themselves from such traffic".[77] Mr Ede stated that the Association deplored illegal export in breach of a country's laws and that he would not trade in objects so exported.[78] The firm position of the British art market was summed up by Ms Rena Moulopoulos of Sotheby's: "If we know something is illegally exported, we will not sell it".[79]

29. The illicit trade in cultural property has had and is continuing to have an impact on the British art market. It has a bearing upon both the conduct and the perceived conduct of that market. The commitment of the British art market to endeavour to ensure that the market is not threatened by and does not facilitate the illicit trade in cultural property is very considerable. What remains in question is the effectiveness of the existing measures to ensure that that commitment is fulfilled.

17  1970 UNESCO Convention, Article 1. On legal prohibitions on trade in human remains, see, for example, Evidence, p 90 and R B Cunningham, Archaeology, Relics, and the Law (Durham, North Carolina, 1999), pp 593-600. Back

18  Q 652. Back

19  QQ 157, 454. Back

20  Q 101. Back

21  Evidence, p 11. Back

22  Q 479. Back

23  Evidence, p 264. Back

24  Evidence, p 151. Back

25  Q 452. Back

26  Evidence, p 264. Back

27  Evidence, p 56. Back

28  IbidBack

29  QQ 155, 165. Back

30  Evidence, p 374; Q 479; J Butler, "The Art and Antiques Squad", in K W Tubb, ed., Antiquities: Trade or Betrayed (London, 1995), p 226. Back

31  Evidence, pp 72, 151. Back

32  Evidence, p 363. Back

33  Evidence, p 11. Back

34  N Brodie, J Doole, P Watson, Stealing History: The Illicit Trade in Cultural Material, Museums Association, June 2000, p 19. Back

35  Evidence, pp 12, 343; QQ 61, 228. Back

36  Evidence, pp 68, 151, 262, 263; QQ 61, 275, 478. Back

37  Evidence, p 12. Back

38  Evidence, p 260. Back

39  Q 72. Back

40  Evidence, pp 24, 25, 258, 259. Back

41  Q 88. Back

42  Q 81. Back

43  Evidence, p 263. Back

44  Evidence, p 260; P J O'Keefe, Trade in Antiquities: Reducing Destruction and Theft, UNESCO, 1997, pp 14-15. Back

45  QQ 72, 83. Back

46  Q 642. Back

47  Evidence, p 11. Back

48  Evidence, p 260. Back

49  Portable Antiquities: A Discussion Document, Department of National Heritage, February 1996, para 12. Back

50  Evidence, p 250. Back

51  Portable Antiquities: A Discussion Document, para 12. Back

52  Evidence, p 35. Back

53  I M Stead, The Salisbury Hoard (Stroud, 1998; paperback edition, 2000), ch 11; QQ 42, 101. Back

54  QQ 42, 121, 700; Portable Antiquities Annual Report 1998-99, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, March 2000, pp 25, 48. Back

55  Q 106. Back

56  Evidence, p 258. Back

57  Evidence, pp 11-12. Back

58  The Salisbury Hoard, passimBack

59  Ibid, p 74. Back

60  Evidence, pp 26, 34. Back

61  Evidence, pp 34, 258-259; Q 42; Stealing History, p 42; J Browning, "A Layman's Attempts to Precipitate Change in Domestic and International 'Heritage' Laws", in Antiquities: Trade or Betrayed, pp 145-149. Back

62  Q 249. Back

63  Q 94. Back

64  Evidence, p 68. Back

65  Evidence, pp 78-79. Back

66  Q 157. Back

67  Evidence, p 164. Back

68  Evidence, p 168. Back

69  Evidence, pp 12, 27; QQ 73, 94, 466. Back

70  Evidence, pp 152, 153; QQ 453, 461. Back

71  Evidence, pp 13, 15, 24, 25, 153, 263-264; Q 75. Back

72  Q 274. Back

73  Evidence, p 162. Back

74  Evidence, pp 163, 167; QQ 484-485. Back

75  QQ 503-504. Back

76  Evidence, p 164. Back

77  Evidence, p 56. Back

78  QQ 157, 183-184. Back

79  QQ 250-252. Back

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