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


Memorandum submitted by the European Association of Archaeologists

The illicit trade in antiquities is the trade in archaeological material which has been recently stolen from museums or looted from archaeological sites and exported illegally from its country of origin. This illicit trade is the cause of ongoing destruction and it is attracting the attention of various concerned groups and organisations worldwide.

  The police of many countries are concerned, quite simply, because the trade is illicit. The people involved are often engaged in other criminal activities and a link with drugs and trafficking has been demonstrated on more than one occasion. This is because drugs and antiquities often originate in the same poorly policed frontier areas of South America and Asia and middlemen may deal in both. There is some evidence to suggest that antiquities might be used to launder drugs money. The police are also concerned because the large but undeclared sums of money that change hands during transactions may also foster corruption in what are often impoverished bureaucracies.

  National governments are sometimes concerned about the illicit trade because it causes the destruction of a national patrimony. Archaeological treasures are often material symbols of national unity. Thus governments may be less concerned about the integrity of archaeological sites than about the final fate of unearthed antiquities. It might not be illegal to dig up objects, or even to own them, but it will be against the law to export them.

  Increasingly, however, governments are looking at the economic possibilities of archaeology. Archaeological sites and museums might be developed as tourist attractions and constitute a major source of foreign currency. In some countries archaeology can be the single most important tourist attraction and its importance should not be underestimated. It is a matter of great economic importance to the governments of these countries that their archaeological heritage should not be dug up and smuggled abroad.

  Archaeologists are concerned about the illicit trade because it causes the looting and destruction of archaeological sites. Thus antiquities are removed from their archaeological context and the history of the site, and ultimately even of a society, cannot then be reconstructed. It is important to emphasise here that it is the destruction of sites that concerns archaeologists, not the ownership of antiquities. Archaeologists endeavour to reconstruct the lives and times of past societies—for most of human history there are no written records and archaeology offers our only access to this past. Even in countries with a long tradition of writing archaeology has much to offer. Many ancient and even recent histories record only the actions of political or religious elites, indeed sometimes they may be little more than propaganda. Archaeology is the only means available for approaching the lives of those who do not appear in the texts. Thus even in countries with a well established written record the destruction of archaeology quite often destroys the history of common people. Archaeological sites are sometimes compared to texts, there to be read by those with the time or the inclination. The unrecorded destruction of a site is akin to the burning of a text.

  Thus there are different constituencies with different reasons for opposing the illicit trade in antiquities. For the police it is a criminal activity and it undermines public order. For many governments it poses a threat to the political unity or economic well-being for the state. For archaeologists it destroys history. All of these concerns are well founded and are concerns about social cohesion. When viewed from these different perspectives the illicit trade in antiquities is, quite simply, an anti-social activity, and it is for this reason that there has been for the past thirty years or so now a concerted international effort to eradicate it.


  The organisation of the illicit trade is reasonably well understood. As a general rule antiquities are excavated in secret and passed on to local middlemen, who are then able to arrange for the material to be smuggled out of the country, whereupon it may be bought by one or more reputable dealers for ultimate sale to collectors or museums.

  This pattern of dispersal through a chain of dealers is a regular practice and details of provenance are lost in the process. There is no legal requirement to reveal a record of ownership history, or provenance, so that there are no means available with which to trace an antiquity back to its original source, and it is not possible for a potential buyer to establish whether an antiquity was originally obtained by honest, or dishonest, means. Licit and illicit antiquities become hopelessly mixed and the response of the trade is to judge them all licit, innocent until proven guilty as one leading dealer has said (Ede 1995). Looted antiquities then acquire a patina of legitimacy when ultimately they are sold, without provenance, by reputable dealers and auction houses. There is little chance they will be recognised as looted. Thus, because of this secrecy, it is not possible to document or demonstrate a consistent link between the widespread looting of archaeological sites and museums, and the continuing appearance on the market of large quantities of unprovenanced antiquities. Nor is it possible to accurately describe or quantify the trade, so that it is difficult to engage in any kind of public debate, or construct a meaningful dialogue between those in favour and those against.

  Thus the opaque conditions in which the trade operates obstruct completely any attempt to reveal the true nature of the material being traded, whether it be good or bad, and prevent open and informed debate, thereby undermining one of the fundamental bases of a free society. They also provide cover for a range of criminal activities, from faking through smuggling to money laundering. It will only prove possible to combat the illicit trade when the trade generally is fully transparent so that clear chains of ownership can be established, and it is possible to distinguish between licit and illicit material.


  As the illicit trade is largely clandestine it is not open to systematic quantification and estimates of total value are usually extrapolations from what few official statistics are available. Interpol suggests that the illicit trade in cultural property is third only in value to drugs and arms, and is worth about $4.5 billion annually, compared to about $1 billion 10 years ago. This increase is thought to be due to the emergence of a large European black market (Kouroupas 1996: 11, 1998: 4).

  In 1993 a submission to the British Government from the various trade organisations suggested that over half a million antiquities are exported annually (Morrison 1995: 208). How many of these were originally looted it is not possible to say. In Britain a minority of antiquities require a licence for export, and the licence records details of type and value. Licences are issued by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport but their records are not available for public inspection however, nor is the Department able to release detailed statistics.


  It is not practical to police every archaeological site in the world in an attempt to keep off looters, the resources are not available. The problem has to be confronted at home in what are called the market nations—the rich countries of Europe and North America, and also increasingly east Asia—where the demand for antiquities is greatest.

  There are two international conventions which are designed specifically to combat the international trade in cultural material, including antiquities. The first is the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. The second is the 1995 UNIDROIT Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects. Both of these Conventions establish an agreed set of legally binding definitions and procedures to be adhered to by signatory states.

  Eighty-six countries have now ratified the UNESCO Convention, including eighteen from Europe, and it has had some effect. The United States, which is the major market nation, has also signed the Convention and in 1983 implemented two of its articles. This has allowed it to enact a series of bilateral agreements with several countries to place import restrictions on certain specified classes of archaeological or other cultural material. Agreements have been reached by Mali in Africa, and El Salvador, Bolivia, Peru, Guatemala and Canada in America, Cyprus and Cambodia in Asia. The effectiveness of these agreements can be judged from the booming market in pre-Columbian antiquities which has not appeared in the United Kingdom and Switzerland. Neither Switzerland nor the United Kingdom have at present ratified the UNESCO Convention, a circumstance which is regrettable enough in itself but scandalous when it is realised that their failure to ratify is directly undermining American initiatives, and looted pre-Columbian material is now being sold in Europe rather than the United States.

  To date no major market nations have ratified the UNIDROIT Convention and at the present time it is not clear that the United States will. It is too soon to judge the effectiveness of this Convention.

  These international conventions also help to set an ethical standard. Quite simply, many people seem to believe that if it is legal then it is ethical. When many of the activities related to collecting and dealing in antiquities are seen to be illegal then the activities themselves will be seen to be increasingly unethical. This is reflected in the codes of ethics prepared by the Museums Association and the International Council of Museums which require all museums to adhere to the principles of the 1970 UNESCO Convention, irrespective of its status in law.

  In February 2000 HM Government announced that it would ratify neither the 1970 UNESCO Convention nor the 1995 UNIDROIT Convention.


  The large scale trade in illegally excavated antiquities causes widespread looting of archaeological sites and the consequent destruction is a destruction of knowledge, a destruction of history. It undermines the economic bases of some poor countries and encourages criminality, both at home and abroad. The illicit trade can only be stopped by reducing demand in the market nations. This can be achieved by legal means and by public censure. The illicit trade would be dampened if the Government of the United Kingdom would ratify the UNESCO and UNIDROIT Conventions. The Government of the United Kingdom should also take measures to ensure a fully transparent trade, so that its workings are exposed and its true nature revealed. Members of the general public will then be in a position to make informed decisions about the antiquities they buy.


  Ede, J 1995. The Antiquities trade: towards a more balanced view. In K W Tubb (ed) Trade and Betrayed, London: Archetype, 211-15.

  Kouroupas, M P 1996. Quoted in Museums Journal, June issue, 11.

  Kouroupas, M P 1998. Illicit trade in cultural objects. Conservation 13 (1), 4-7.

  Morrison, C R 1995. United Kingdom export policies in relation to antiquities. In K W Tubb (ed) Trade and Betrayed, London: Archetype, 205-10.


  The European Association of Archaeologists (EAA) recommends that HM Government should proceed at once to:

    —  ratify the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property; and

    —  ratify the 1995 UNIDROIT Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects.

  Recognising that the secrecy in which the trade operates is unacceptable in a democratic society, the EAA recommends that HM Government should:

    —  make its Export Licensing System fully comprehensive, and make records available for public inspection; and

    —  impose a statutory obligation upon dealers and auctioneers to reveal details of ownership history.

  Further recognising that the illicit trade has links with international organised crime, the EAA recommends that HM Government should:

    —  encourage prosecutions to be brought to bear under the 1988 Criminal Justice Act when dealers or auctioneers are caught in possession of stolen material.

March 2000

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