Protecting Cultural Objects

PART ONE: BACKGROUND
The Importance of Documentation in the Protection of Cultural Objects
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The Importance of Documentation in the Protection of Cultural Objects
The importance of documentation, both textual and visual, in preventing the illicit trade in cultural objects has long been recognized. Documentation is indeed crucial to the protection of cultural property, for objects which have not been photographed and adequately described are rarely recoverable by law-enforcement officials. In the words of Mirielle Ballestrazzi, formerly of the French Art Squad, "Without a detailed description, without a photograph, without the characteristics of the stolen object, the police and their occasional associates can do little."46 She sees the difficulties of identifying objects as "one of the basic problems. . .Although there is little difficulty in the investigation of a unique and well-known work, there are numerous problems associated with many objects, those which are essentially the bread and butter of trafficking."47 Law-enforcement officers believe that one of the best ways of "preparing for the theft" is "by providing the means for detection, recognition and identification of the object in case it is discovered after the theft."48 The point is well illustrated by the following example:
During the course of an investigation of trafficking channels, it is not uncommon to discover a whole stock of objects of art and antiques of all sorts in the hands of an international fence. In these cases, the difficulties are enormous when an attempt is made to trace the objects. . .back to the different victimized owners, to prove that these objects were in fact stolen, and to be able in the end to restore them to their legitimate owner.49

A number of law-enforcement agencies have run crime-prevention campaigns aimed at encouraging the public to make records -- primarily photographic -- of valuable property. Insurance companies, too, are coming to recognize the importance of documenting valuable objects and recommend the taking of photographs and the making of inventories.50

At the international level, the importance of documentation has long been recognized as a vital component in the fight against the illicit trade in cultural objects. Article 5 of the UNESCO Convention of 1970 called for the establishment and maintenance of national inventories of cultural property. Since 1970, UNESCO has continued to encourage the creation of inventories and has worked to provide technical assistance to "exporting" states in the setting up of inventory systems. A number of other international initiatives have also recognized the importance of inventories. For example, Resolution 3 of the Charter of Courmayeur declared that "detailed and extensive information concerning the cultural patrimony of every nation is of the foremost importance. Consequently, Governments should consider establishing inventories of their cultural patrimony, containing, when possible, a description of each item adequate for its identification and a photographic reproduction of it."51 The compilation of documentation on cultural objects was one of the issues discussed at the CSCE's Cracow Symposium, the delegates to which called for "the complete and lasting documentation of sites, structures, cultural landscapes, objects and cultural systems."52 The Council of Europe, meeting in Prague in 1993, stressed "how important it is to identify movable cultural property" and called for inventories to be compiled.53

The Draft UNIDROIT Convention recognizes the importance of documentation. Article 4 states that the possessor of a stolen cultural object who is required to return it shall be entitled to fair compensation only if it can be proved that he or she "exercised due diligence when acquiring the object. . .In determining whether the possessor exercised due diligence, regard shall be had to the circumstances of the acquisition, including the character of the parties, the price paid, whether the possessor consulted any reasonably accessible register of stolen cultural objects, and any other relevant information and documentation which it could reasonably have obtained."

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