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ICOM Measures concerning the Fight against the Illicit Traffic of Cultural Property

ICOM considers combatting illicit trade in cultural goods to be one of the core aims of its programme of action. The museum professionals who belong to the organisation play an active part in this campaign, focusing not only on preventive measures such as promoting professional ethics and ensuring the security of collections, but also on concrete initiatives directly involving international networks of professionals.


Promoting a clear-cut set of professional ethics is absolutely central to the work of ICOM. Museum professionals must play a leading role in combatting illicit trade by observing strict rules regarding the objects offered to them. ICOM began by publishing a document entitled Ethics of Museum Acquisitions in conjunction with UNESCO in 1971. Then, at the 15th ICOM General Assembly in 1986, the ICOM Code of Professional Ethics was officially approved. This Code lays down a set of principles governing museums and the museum profession in general, and acquisitions and transfers of ownership of collections in particular. It has been revised and a new version was adopted by the 21st General Assembly, in Seoul (Repubblic of Korea) in October 2004.


The security of collections depends on all museum staff being appropriately trained, and on inventories being kept up to date. ICOM has encouraged greater professionalism amongst staff responsible for safeguarding heritage items, via its International Committee for the Training of Personnel (ICTOP). Its International Documentation Committee (CIDOC) helps museums draw up inventories - a vital factor in the security of collections. This Committee and its working groups also determine international standards, vocabulary and suitable terms for managing, researching, exhibiting and conserving objects.

African museums made use of this work in preparing their Handbook of Standards. Documenting African collections which was published in 1996 as part of AFRICOM's programme of action. This represents the first continent-wide move to share cultural resources and provide a basis for international collaboration.

Taking measures to improve security, whether or not these make use of advanced technology, constitutes a useful precaution against theft. The ICOM International Committee for Museum Security (ICMS) publishes international directives on security, and trains senior security staff. At its annual meetings, the merits of different preventive measures and security systems are discussed and experiences shared.

In many countries, the cultural heritage often remains outside museums, in the care of the communities which generated it. Populations need to be made aware of the importance of this heritage and of its vital role in preserving their cultural identity. Professionals need to develop closer links with these communities and set up collaborative projects. This is one of the themes of ICOM's International Committee for Education and Cultural Action (CECA), which is made up of museum staff who specialise in presenting and explaining artworks to the public.

Finally, ICOM's National Committees draw up national plans of action to combat illicit trade in cultural goods.


To alert the general public as well as professionals to this problem, ICOM decided to redouble its efforts in the fight against illicit trade by publishing a series of volumes entitled One Hundred Missing Objects. Four volumes have been published. Devoted respectively to the Angkor archaeological site (Looting in Angkor), African heritage (Looting in Africa), Latin American heritage (Looting in Latin America) and European religious heritage (Looting in Europe) they have led to several of the stolen or looted objects being identified and returned. Press campaigns associated with each volume have contributed to increasing awareness among professionals and the general public regarding heritage protection.

ICOM also publishes a selection of objects reported stolen to Interpol in its quarterly journal, ICOM News, which is circulated free to ICOM's 17,000 members worldwide.

Since April 2000, a new means of raising awareness has come into existence: the ICOM Red List. The list can be modified and is not exhaustive: its aim is to list the types of objects most frequently removed from sites or stolen. The first ICOM Red List is devoted to African archaeological heritage, and was drawn up by African, European and North American museum professionals. The second Red List is devoted to the cultural heritage in Latin America and the third one, entitled "Emergency Red List of Iraqi Antiquities at Risk was published to help customs and officials to recognize objects that could originate from Iraq. The objects on these lists are extremely vulnerable to looting and theft. They are protected by law; their export is prohibited; and they can on no account be offered for sale. ICOM therefore appeals to museums, dealers and collectors not to buy these objects.


Since 1993, ICOM has held a number of workshops in conjunction with Interpol and UNESCO on the subject of illicit trade in cultural property. These workshops have brought together museum professionals, police and customs officers with the aim of deciding on effective regional measures against thefts and looting. In Africa and Latin America and more recently in Southeast Asia, they have resulted the setting-up of operational teams of people directly involved in heritage protection, and have facilitated regional and international co-operation.
(Tanzania,1993; Mali, 1994; Ecuador, 1995; Rep.Dem. of Congo, 1996; Tunisia, 1998, Vietnam 2001; Colombia, 2002; Sri Lanka, 2003)


Thefts from museums and looting of archaeological sites provide fodder for an international traffic in cultural goods. Museums cannot act alone, so ICOM works closely with police and customs authorities. 2000 has been a landmark year for heritage protection: ICOM has signed agreements with both the World Customs Organisation (WCO) and Interpol on the role played by customs and police authorities in the fight against illicit trade in cultural goods. This increased awareness on the part of the international bodies charged with monitoring the flow of goods should provide museums with additional support in their efforts to stop this iniquitous trade.

At the same time, ICOM is working with UNESCO to promote the UNESCO Convention of 1970 and the 1995 Unidroit Convention, which are currently the only international legal instruments in this area. Many of the countries which import cultural goods have not yet ratified these agreements. In these cases, ICOM communicates with its National Committees to ask professionals to convey its preoccupations and requests to their respective governments.

The fight against illicit trade in cultural property is not only a matter for museum professionals: the forces now ranged alongside them demonstrate that the fight against this menace to cultural heritage is a battle that concerns us all.

Updated: 7 October 2005