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


Memorandum submitted by the United Kingdom Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (UKIC)

  1.  UKIC is a registered charitable company limited by guarantee, set up to encourage education, study and research in conservation and related practices. Its membership consists mainly of professional conservator-restorers divided into nine specialist materials sections presided over by the Council which meets at least quarterly. The sections operate under the auspices of their own elected committees and are Archaeology, Ceramics and Glass, Furniture, Gilding, Metals, Paintings, Stained Glass, Stone and Wall-paintings, and Textiles. UKIC is notable for the breadth of conservation expertise represented by its membership which is by subscription.

  2.  UKIC was founded in 1958 and has always been dedicated to the care and preservation of cultural property. In 1993, the Archaeology Section, increasingly concerned by the burgeoning trade in antiquities most of which were unprovenanced, organised an international conference entitled "Conservation and the Antiquities Trade". The proceedings and a selection of other papers were published in 1995 in a volume entitled Antiquities: Trade or Betrayed—Legal, ethical and conservation issues. (See copy provided with this memorandum.[3]) UKIC and the Archaeology Section remain extremely concerned about issues raised by the illicit trade in antiquities in particular, and in cultural property in general, and are adamantly opposed to the looting of archaeological sites and the destruction of the archaeological heritage both in the UK and abroad. Mindful of the irretrievable loss to mankind's knowledge and understanding of the past, it is a source of deep regret that so much material, which would be deemed stolen in its country of origin, should be traded freely in the UK.

  3.  The Archaeology Section has been a member of the Standing Conference on Portable Antiquities since its inception. UKIC is aware that the Standing Conference is submitting evidence separately on behalf of all its representatives which it endorses but UKIC wanted to reinforce further the strength of its concern by means of its own brief submission. UKIC's anxiety has been increased by the Government's recent announcement of its decision not to become a signatory to either the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property nor to the 1995 UNIDROIT Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects. UKIC would also suggest that the Select Committee consult a report prepared for the Museums Association (MA) and the International Council of Museums (ICOM) by Neil Brodie, Jenny Doole and Peter Watson which is in the process of being published under the working title The Illicit Trade in Cultural and Natural Science Material.

  4.  The negative impact on world heritage of the illicit trade in cultural property is incalculable. Decontextualisation of artefacts whether they be decorative architectural features such as wallpaintings or heads of statues, ethnographic materials such as Aymara textiles or Nigerian house posts, or archaeological artefacts, deprives them of a large part of their meaning and impoverishes all humanity. The destruction of the world's archaeological heritage threatens our potential to know anything substantive of whole civilisations. It must be remembered that the archaeological sites are a non-renewable resource. The loss of context caused by the systematic looting of sites has been likened to the Roman destruction of the library in Alexandria in which much of the learning of antiquity was burned. (Meyer, K., The Plundered Past, Atheneum, New York [1973].)

  5.  It is vital to bear in mind that 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.

  6.  The mining of a site for recovery of artefacts for the illicit market is estimated to result in the destruction of as much as 90 per cent of the recoverable material depending on the extraction method. (Melikian, S., "A Degree of Destruction Unprecedented in the History of the World—and Yet I Support Collecting". Art Newspaper, No 52, (London), October 1995.) Fragile materials and any artefacts not deemed to have any monetary value are destroyed or discarded and sustain irreparable damage. Contextual information is not the only casualty.

  7.  Artefacts deemed marketable then sustain further damage to facilitate smuggling them out of their country of origin (for example, flat-packing stone sarcophagi and stelae) and to obscure their true provenance and identity (for example, chopping up wallpaintings and mosaics into smaller decorative fragments for separate sale as was done to the Tree of Jesse fresco from the monastery of Antiphonitis and the apsidal mosaics from Panayia Kanakaria« in northern Cyprus). The 1997 case of Regina v Jonathan Tokeley-Parry illustrates this point aptly and UKIC suggests that the Select Committee might wish to receive oral evidence for amplification from Helena Jaeschke. (Also, see Jaeschke, H., 1996. The Conservation Treatment of Looted Antiquities and the Responsibilities of Conservators. pp 82-85 in A Ray and P Smith eds, Archaeological Conservation and Its Consequences. London: IIC.)

  8.  Unexcavated antiquities are uniquely vulnerable since their ownership cannot be demonstrated by reference to catalogues, inventories and so on. Consequently, unprovenanced pieces and those which have not formed part of a documented collection which come onto the market should be regarded with suspicion. Actions for recovery of such material are exceedingly difficult. It is in recognition of this that the 1995 UNIDROIT Convention confers special protection to such material in Article 3.2. UKIC hopes that the distinction of antiquities from the rest of cultural property will be acknowledged by this Committee. (See Tubb, K.W., 1996, "Thoughts in Response to the Draft Principles to Govern a Licit International Traffic in Cultural Property", pp 113-116 in M Briat and JA Freedberg eds, Legal Aspects of International Trade in Art. Vol. V, International Sales of Works of Art. Paris, The Hague: ICC Publishing SA and Kluwer Law International.)

  9.  UKIC is aware that marine archaeological heritage is at risk from the trade in antiquities. Developments since the mid 1980s in mixed gas "technical diving" and deep sea-bed technology using remotely operated "grabs" mean that such heritage is increasingly under threat. The majority of financially-led excavations generate artefacts with a provenance insufficiently specific to contribute to the archaeological record, despite the high-profile exhibitions often associated with archaeological treasure salvage. The masked appearance of artefacts from marine sites frequently incurs the use of inadequate, damaging or destructive treatments with no adherence to professional ethics. The use of explosives to blow apart ancient shipping in order to retrieve the portable heritage within has been routine. Artefacts recovered, such as cannon and small personal items, even within the bounds of state concessions to salvage, contribute greatly to increased demands for marine artefacts within the international art market: marine sites in third world states are particularly vulnerable. The monetary example of the astrolabe is known to have directly resulted in the exploitation of previously undisturbed wrecks in deeper waters. Known sites are subject to theft to order. UKIC commends the Government's current involvement with the draft UNESCO Convention on the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage but is concerned in this context at the Government's recent decision not to sign up to existing Conventions as mentioned above, para 3. The Select Committee may wish to receive oral evidence from Amanda Sutherland for amplification of this paragraph.

  10.  By its own admission, the art market is secretive. Measures to introduce greater transparency such as the concept of "due diligence" are essential to help counteract the illicit trade. Failure to adopt such measures to proscribe trading in unprovenanced material will obstruct progress on countering trade in and return of illicitly acquired material. The easing of trade restrictions on elephant ivory and the concomitant rise in poaching of elephants is indicative of this.

  11.  Ethical codes such as the ICOM Code of Professional Ethics exist but are failing in that no apparent action seems to be taken when breaches occur.

  12.  The EC Directive on the Return of Cultural Objects Unlawfully Removed from the Territory of a Member State and the implementing statutory instrument The Return of Cultural Objects Regulations 1994, 51, No. 501 of 1994 are felt to be ineffective because the machinery to operate them is elaborate, bureaucratic and expensive. Additionally they are limited to EC members only and private citizens have no statutory right of action.

  13.  The 1970 UNESCO Convention and the 1995 UNIDROIT Convention are not retroactive. UKIC regards the conflation of claims for restitution of cultural property removed, not necessarily illicitly, in the more distant past with action to address the present situation as unhelpful.

  14.  Discussions of this nature often appear to suggest that the sharing of cultural materials among the different world cultures can only be achieved by transferring titles of ownership. This is not so. Such sharing is essential for all but can be accomplished by means of loans and negotiated exchanges of materials.

March 2000

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