Protecting Cultural Objects

The Threats to the World's Cultural Objects (2/3)
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Since 1990, publicity has highlighted the problem of thefts of cultural objects from the formerly communist countries of central and eastern Europe. The rapid growth of this illicit trade has been stimulated by a combination of open borders, a desperate need for hard currency, and a ready market for the objects in the West. In 1993, the Czech Republic's Ministry of Culture claimed that "taking the thefts and illicit exporting together, we may be talking about an annual loss of up to 10 per cent of our heritage."9 The statistics produced by Moscow's militia on the rising number of crimes involving cultural objects are equally worrying. Official statistics for 1991 showed that this type of crime had increased by 300 percent, although the actual damage and rate of crime was believed to be considerably in excess of this figure.10

Religious objects have been a major target of art thieves in these countries. In Russia, the number of thefts from churches and chapels has been estimated at 43 percent of the total number of thefts of cultural objects.11 The Czech Republic is concerned about the growing number of thefts of religious objects, which have risen from less than 100 in 1989 to 2,000 in 1993.12 A list produced by the Czech police of properties robbed in the first eleven months of 1993 includes 767 churches, 171 chapels, 11 parsonages, 222 monasteries, and 384 graveyards.13 In Poland some art thieves specialize in stealing from churches -- unguarded buildings which have been described as "a sieve of misplaced trust, through which valuable icons, altar paintings and statues constantly disappear."14

The West has not escaped the rising tide of thefts involving cultural objects. Recent years have seen increasing public awareness of the growth of art theft. This has come about largely as a result of a number of well-publicized crimes, including the stealing of paintings by Vermeer, Rembrandt, Degas, and Manet from the Gardner Museum, Boston, in 1990; twenty paintings by van Gogh from Amsterdam in 1991; works by Picasso and Braque from Stockholm in 1993; Munch's "The Scream" from Oslo in February 1994; two Turners from Frankfurt in July 1994; and a Titian from Longleat House, England, in January 1995. However, these thefts of important works of art are only the tip of the iceberg. For example, there were no less than 253,000 recorded art thefts in Italy during the period 1970-90.15 It has been estimated that in the United Kingdom alone the losses of insured fine art and antiques are somewhere on the order of $600 million to $750 million per annum, with uninsured losses bringing the total to around $1.5 billion.16

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