Cultural Heritage Organizations, page 2 of 4

One of the largest threats to the world's cultural heritage is the looting of archaeological sites and monuments. The temples of Cambodia have suffered severely in the last 25 years, one casualty including the World Heritage Site of Angkor (photographs copyright Etienne Clément/UNESCO).

Historic Buildings

The increasing incidence of thefts from museums has been paralleled by a growth in thefts of objects that are housed in, or part of, historic buildings. In particular, religious objects have been one of the major targets of art thieves in many parts of the world. In Russia the number of thefts from churches and chapels was estimated in 1994 to be 43 percent of the total number of thefts of cultural objects.24 In the Czech Republic, thefts of cultural objects rose from fewer than 100 in 1989 to 2,000 in 1993.25 In Poland, certain thieves specialize in stealing from churches—unguarded buildings that have been described as "a sieve of misplaced trust, through which valuable icons, altar paintings, and statues constantly disappear."26 In Latin America, too, churches have been systematically looted.27 Thefts from churches have become a significant problem in western Europe in the last ten years, although the size of the problem varies from country to country. In Belgium, thefts from religious buildings in 1994 accounted for 9 percent of cases involving cultural objects,28 whereas in Italy, the figure was 35 percent.29 No comparable statistics are available for the United Kingdom, but it is believed that approximately one-third of English parish churches have lost objects in recent years. Worldwide, thefts from religious buildings accounted for 33 percent of the notices issued by Interpol in 1995.

The bodies responsible for these buildings and their contents are taking steps to improve security and ensure that adequate inventories are made. The Pontifical Commission for the Cultural Heritage of the Church, established by the Vatican in 1988, recognizes the increasing problem of illicit trade in religious objects, stressing

that collections, any artistic or historic materials or monuments, be: well kept in terms of their state of conservation; well documented by means of up-to-date inventories and catalogues according to modern standards which require the aid of photographic support material; well preserved in suitable spaces equipped with modern methods of surveillance.30

Table 3. Comparison of Object ID Categories of Information with Those of a Number of Existing Standards and Guidelines
Category of Information AITF
Data Model
Data Dict.

Object Type X X X X X X
Material & Techniques X X X X X X
Measurements X X X X X X
Inscriptions & Markings X X X X X X
Distinguishing Features         X *
Title X X X X X X
Subject X X X X X X
Date or Period X X X X X X
Maker X X X X X X
Description X X X X X X
AITF CDWA - Art Information Task Force, Categories for the Description of Works of Art
CIDOC Data Model - International Council of Museums Documentation Committee, Data Model
CIDOC: IGMOI - International Guidelines for Museum Object Information
CHIN: Data Dict. - Canadian Heritage Information Network, Data Dictionary
ICOM AFRICOM - International Council of Museums, AFRICOM Programme
MDA SPECTRUM - Museum Documentation Association, SPECTRUM

* Distinguishing Features is to be included in Version 2 of SPECTRUM (1997).

Similarly, the Council for the Care of Churches (England) has issued a guide to church security. This publication recommends the making of "a fully descriptive written record of all items in the church" and "a photographic record of all the objects listed."31

The growing threat to the moveable heritage has led some inventory-making bodies to re-evaluate their approaches to documenting cultural objects, in terms of both the speed with which the inventories are made and the need to describe objects in order to identify them in the event of theft. The Ministry of Culture of the Czech Republic, for example, found its existing national inventory inadequate for identifying objects stolen from churches. It has responded by carrying out a rapid survey using video cameras to document the contents of these buildings. Another example is the survey of churches recently established by the Heritage Council of Ireland. The Council has developed a system for recording minimum information about both the buildings and the objects they contain. The recording form for inventorying the contents of the Irish churches is to be based on Object ID, and will uniquely identify the objects in the event of theft.

At the international level, the importance of inventories to the recovery and return of stolen and illegally exported objects is highlighted by the UNESCO 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export, and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, which requires that Parties to the Convention agree to prohibit the import of, and to recover and return to the source nation, any "cultural property stolen from a museum or a religious or secular public monument or similar institution in another State Party to this Convention. . .provided that such property is documented as pertaining to the inventory of that institution."32

Inventory-making bodies, like museums, recognize the importance of documentation standards and, in recent years, have entered into an increasing amount of international collaboration. In Europe, the Istituto Centrale per il Catalogo e la Documentazione (Italy), the Inventaire Général des Monuments et des Richesses Artistiques de la France, and the Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England, in particular, have played a leading role in developing standards for the exchange of inventory information among institutions.33 The Council of Europe has played an important role in the development of documentation standards for the recording of the cultural heritage. In 1989 the Council initiated a project that has resulted in the development of a Core Data Index to Historic Buildings and Monuments of the Architectural Heritage.34 It is concerned that there should be a similar standard for the description of the moveable heritage, and for this reason has encouraged the development of Object ID.

Archaeological Sites

One of the largest threats to the world's cultural heritage is the illicit excavation of archaeological sites. In Latin America thousands of archaeological sites have been looted, including every known archaeological site in the Cara Sucia region of El Salvador, the majority of sites in Belize, and many sites in Mexico and Guatemala. In Africa, the illegal excavation of sites in the archaeologically rich countries of West Africa has increased dramatically since the early 1970s. In Asia, too, the problem has grown to serious proportions. Chinese authorities believe that antiquities are now the largest single class of item smuggled out of their country.35 The monuments of Cambodia have also suffered severely in the last 25 years, the casualties including the World Heritage Site of Angkor Wat. In Europe, the catalogue of damage and loss includes important archaeological sites in Italy, Spain, Greece, Ireland, and the United Kingdom. In North America, illicit excavations have affected many Native American sites from New England to the southwest United States.

The archaeological community is deeply concerned about illicit excavation, pointing out that removing objects from the ground in any other way than in the course of a scientifically conducted excavation results in the loss of valuable information, which in turn is a "loss to our common heritage—our collective understanding of the human past."36 The position of the archaeological community has been summed up by the British archaeologist Professor Lord Renfrew:

To the historian and the archaeologist, the objects themselves are not the prime concern. What really matters is that these objects, within their context of discovery, have the potential to tell us a good deal about the people who made them, and how they lived and died. That is what archaeological research and excavation are about.37

Similarly, the Peruvian archaeologist Walter Alva has made the point that "archaeological objects are more than just art objects. They are the scientific puzzle pieces that put our history, our identity, into context."38

Approaches to the protection of the archaeological heritage vary from country to country. They include designating certain sites as national monuments and making it illegal to carry out excavations without permission; passing legislation declaring the objects found at sites to be state property; placing restrictions on the export of objects; establishing special police squads to protect sites; and sponsoring campaigns to increase public awareness of the need to protect sites.

Those working to recover illegally excavated objects face the major problem: "it is of the nature of illicit excavation that the process is not recorded, and nor are the finds."39 However, adopting a more standardized approach to describing objects from archaeological sites—whether discovered in the course of scientifically conducted excavations, reported as chance finds, or seized by customs or police—offers widely recognized advantages.40


24 Trace, July 1993.

25 The Observer, February 6, 1994.

26 The Art Newspaper, February 1995.

27 des Portes, 1996, 52.

28 Information provided by Interpol Brussels.

29 Between 1990 and 1994 2,952 thefts from churches were reported to Italy's Carabinieri Tutela Patrimonio Artistico, representing 34 percent of all thefts of cultural objects.

30 Correspondence from the Most Reverend Archbishop Francesco Marchisano, President of the Pontifical Commission for the Cultural Heritage of the Church, August 1994.

31 R.S. Brun, Church Security: A Simple Guide (London: Council for the Care of Churches, 1989).

32 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export, and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, 1970, Article 7 (b)(i).

33 The Inventaire général has also been collaborating with the Canadian Heritage Information Network, Centre national de la recherche scientifique in France, and the Comité national de construction et d'art sacré in Canada to develop a guide and terminology for the description of religious objects.

34 Core Data Index to Historic Buildings and Monuments of the Architectural Heritage, Recommendation R (95) 3 of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe to member States on co-ordinating documentation methods and systems related to historic buildings and monuments of the architectural heritage.

35 J.D. Murphy, "The People's Republic of China and the Illicit Trade in Cultural Property," International Journal of Cultural Property , Vol. 3, No. 2 (1994), 228.

36 Renfrew, 8.

37 Ibid.

38 M.A. Demsey, "Protecting The Past: An Interview with Walter Alva," Hemispheres (September 1995), 29.

39 Renfrew, 8.

40 See L.V. Prott and P.J. O'Keefe, Law and Cultural Heritage, Vol. I: Discovery and Excavation (Abingdon: Professional Books, 1984), 267-8.


Protecting Cultural Objects in the Global Information Society — Copyright © 1997 The J. Paul Getty Trust