Memorandum submitted by the European Association
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
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 societiesfor 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
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 nationsthe rich countries of
Europe and North America, and also increasingly east Asiawhere
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
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;
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.