Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by Mr Claude Hankes-Drielsma

In writing to the Committee I would like them to have a brief understanding of my background and interest. I am a former Chairman of the Management Committee of Price Waterhouse and Partners, a collector of antiquities, a Patron and benefactor to the British Museum and on a Committee of the Ashmolean Museum, Patron of the National Portrait Gallery and an Honorary Fellow of Corpus Christi College, Oxford. Several years ago when I identified some important Romano-British objects with a dealer in New York I immediately reported this to the British Museum. It turned out to be an illegal export, had been stolen and the matter could be dealt with accordingly.

  I also identified an item in an antiquities sale at Sotheby's in London which at the time had no provenance. It was only because it was publicly auctioned that it was in due course united with other parts of the object with impeccable provenance and is now on loan to the British Museum. Had Sotheby's refused to auction the piece because of no known provenance, the provenance would almost certainly have been lost for ever and the object would have been lost to the nation.

  My evidence is primarily aimed at archaeological objects. I have visited many of the countries concerned and am aware of the problems of the trade of antiquities. Of course UNIDROIT would affect all trade in art and contravene significantly the spirit of free trade.

  The fundamental problem of illicit trade lies with countries from which the illicit trade stems. Sensible and pragmatic laws by those countries could greatly reduce the problems of trade and change much of the trade from illicit to legal. The laws which we have in England make eminent sense as to chance finds. The regulations and laws with regard to chance finds for many countries are such that the finders of such properties would rather destroy them than declare them. The penalty of declaring in terms of land confiscation and corruption is such that there is no incentive to do so.

  Counteracting this illicit trade has to start by the countries concerned applying a more pragmatic approach both with regard to losses and economic realities. Furthermore, countries which are concerned with archaeological illegal exports need to ensure that objects excavated and in museums are properly photographed and recorded. This would enable them to identify when these objects are stolen and then ensure that they alert institutions such as the Art Loss Register to the loss. It would enable dealers in antiquities over a certain value to always check with the Art Loss Register or such like organisations to ensure that the objects they are handling are not stolen.

  The operational effect of legislation relating to the return of cultural objects unlawfully removed is extremely complex and it is unlikely that unless objects have been photographed and identified that the countries concerned can prove in which of the countries the object originated. There have been several recent examples where three countries claimed one object was from their country. In other cases countries have reclaimed objects (recently Egypt) where it turned out the said objects were fakes.

  Ratification of UNIDROIT by the UK would not only be a direct contravention of free trade but the bureaucracy required to deal with claims would be insurmountable given the above problems. Art trade is a very major international market and if a country could claim art which had been purchased legally was under their domestic law an illegal purchase, and it would then be for the owners of the art to prove this was not the case and these owners would be in an impossible position to fight the resources of a country. Furthermore, the country's laws may be such that they totally contravene the legal rights of ownership of the country under whose jurisdiction the owners are. Any success in this regard for the said countries could generate an avalanche of claims, very often for political reasons rather than cultural.

  Destruction of important and crucial sites to the understanding of the ancient world takes place in countries such as Greece, Turkey and Italy on a daily basis. The Athens airport, underground, olympic stadium are to name a few. The destruction of Greek vases in Athens recently due to gross incompetence (the vase cases were known to be totally unstable for several years) demonstrates the lack of concern and financial commitment within many of the countries that create the biggest outcry with regard to illicit trade. We must therefore question whether very often this is not a politically motivated action when the countries are party to destruction of similar objects.

  Unless an item has been photographed and recorded in the said countries, there is no practical way of resolving the problem. Recently as a result of pressure by individuals such as Lord Renfrew, Sotheby's London decided to close down its antiquities department. The result has been that their New York office has almost doubled the size of its antiquities sales in the last few years. However, the sale of important antiquities has tended to go underground, ie through dealers, making it impossible for scholars and museums to be aware of either archaeologically important objects, but far more important, to be able to identify objects when they might have been stolen.

  The pragmatic approach we take with regard to Treasure Trove etc sadly cannot be applied in many countries due to corruption within the said countries. But unless a pragmatic approach is taken and the basic laws of ownership and rules of free trade apply, a problem will be unleashed which will be far greater than we have at the moment and in no way resolve the underlying problem, which rests with the countries of origin.

  There is also a real danger that the impracticalities of UNIDROIT and the like will lead in many countries to increased destruction of cultural heritage rather than preservation.

March 2000

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