Protecting Cultural Objects

The Response of the International Community (2/2)
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Officers of the Arts and Antiques Squad of the Metropolitan Police (U.K.) examine recovered objects. A major problem faced by law-enforcement agencies is that unless an object was photographed and adequately described before it was stolen, it is unlikely to be recoverable by its rightful owner (photograph copyright Metropolitan Police).
Potentially the most important initiative of recent years has been the preparation of the Draft UNIDROIT Convention on the International Return of Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects. This Convention "seeks to create a unified code whereby claimants in countries that are party to the convention may sue in the courts of other signatory countries for the return of stolen or illegally exported cultural objects."39 Italy has convened a diplomatic conference to adopt a final text for the signature of participating states.40

The law-enforcement community has recognized illicit trade in cultural objects as a major category of international crime, one that can be suppressed only through international collaboration.41 A number of national law-enforcement agencies have set up squads to combat this trade. At the international level, the formal link between these agencies is provided by INTERPOL, an organization established in 1923 to promote and organize collaboration between all affiliated states. INTERPOL is, in effect, a clearinghouse for information using a network of reciprocal links among its 176 member countries. It circulates only that information about cultural objects which has been reported to member police forces, as stolen or as property found in suspicious circumstances.42 The organization publishes some 3,000 notices per year; each notice contains, on average, five items.

In addition to law-enforcement agencies, a number of organizations collect and disseminate information about stolen cultural objects. These include UNESCO, the International Council of Museums (ICOM), the International Foundation for Art Research (IFAR), Trace, and the International Art and Antique Loss Register (London and New York). UNESCO publishes notices of missing cultural objects, and ICOM has produced two books in its 100 Missing Objects series: Looting in Angkor (1993) and Looting in Africa (1994). The ICOM publications are distributed to museum professionals, police, customs, antique dealers, and auction houses. Together with UNESCO, ICOM organized the first workshops for museum professionals, police, and customs officers on illicit traffic ever held in Africa. The first of these was held in Tanzania in 1993, and the second in Mali in 1994.

The International Foundation for Art Research was founded in 1969. In 1976 it began to collect stolen art reports for a central registry. Since 1985 the foundation has published IFAR Reports,43 a newsletter which provides information about recently reported catalogued stolen art and carries articles on art theft and authentication. Trace magazine,44 established in 1988 and distributed to readers in 172 countries, also provides information about stolen art and antiques and articles on art theft. The Art Loss Register was established in 1991, when it began operating a computerized database of stolen art and antiques with records licensed from IFAR. It is based in London and New York, and is funded through subscription fees paid by the insurance industry. The objectives of the organization are the recovering of stolen property, deterring the theft of art, antiques, and valuables, and reducing the trade in stolen art.45

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