Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport First Report


The previous Committee reported in June 2000 on the illicit trade in cultural property and the possible return, to the original owners or countries of origin, of items from the collections of national museums and galleries. Our further inquiry was prompted by reports of the looting of cultural property in Iraq and the potential for its appearance on the London art market. The latest position on Iraq is set out at the end of this Report but the key findings unearthed as a result of our work relate to a distinct lack of progress with vital elements of what it was hoped was the Government's cultural property agenda.

In summary our predecessor recommended: a national database of stolen and illegally removed cultural property; the criminalisation of dealing in such property; accession to an appropriate international convention; and — whilst affirming the concept of world class museums with global collections — the early introduction of legislation to permit national museums and galleries to return objects, in response to valid claims, in two specific categories: human remains and material illegally removed by the Nazis during the period 1933 to 1945 (known as 'spoliation').

The Government accepted the majority of these recommendations and there seemed to be general synergy between the Committee, the Government and its expert advisory bodies, the art market and the wider museum community on the relevant issues and way forward. Despite this high degree of consensus, however, there are few concrete achievements to point to after a period of more than three years.

The UK has signed the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, and Government support for a Private Member's Bill saw the Dealing in Cultural Objects (Offences) Bill receive Royal Assent on 30 October 2003. These achievements are important, but they will prove hollow if not backed up by practical measures.

A national database of stolen and otherwise tainted cultural objects — described as the single most important practical measure to give effect to both the Convention and the new Act — seems mired in a slow-motion wrangle between DCMS, Home Office and the police. After more than two years of consideration two fundamentally different options remain on the table: one being pursued by the Home Office and one by the DCMS. It is claimed as a defence that the project raises complex issues. We believe the lack of progress stems from a complete failure of "joined-up government" in an area where the policy priorities happen to lie with one department and the means and resources with another.

Similarly worrying is the state of the overall strategy — or lack of one — on tackling the illicit trade and apparent confusion within Government over whether this black market is linked in a significant way to organised crime. Despite the signing of the UNESCO Convention and the criminalising of dishonest dealing in tainted cultural objects, the systems, resources and coordination across different agencies for checking both imports and exports seem deeply unsatisfactory.

There are also mixed results to report on "return" issues. The Working Group on Human Remains published a detailed 300 page report on 5 November 2003 during the course of this inquiry. We heard that there was now the potential to establish a permissive regime for national museums in this area, courtesy of a forthcoming Department of Health Bill on human tissue announced in the Queen's Speech on 26 November 2003. However, we foresee difficulties in establishing a consensus over a practical system to handle claims, even following legislative change, given the dissent set out in the working group's report.

With regard to spoliation, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport seems to have withdrawn from the consensus for legislative change — established following our predecessor's Report — saying that the expected tidal wave of claims had not in fact arisen. She did say that the DCMS would push for change to allow the return of relevant items if advised to do so by the Spoliation Advisory Panel. However, the difficulties of achieving the sort of focused legislative amendment in question cannot, in the light of experience, be underestimated. There is great uncertainty in the DCMS being able to repeat such progress as has so far been achieved given the operation of chance in arrangements for Private Members' Bills and other departments' legislative programmes offering the opportunity for piggy-backing. The DCMS should not wait for a valid spoliation claim to be made (other than can be satisfied by compensation) to seek a change in the law. It will be too late.

Our recommendations are therefore aimed at encouraging real progress with what appear to be moribund aspects of the Government's approach and tackling the apparent gaps in any strategy there may be.

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Prepared 16 December 2003