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The looting of archaeological items and the destruction of archaeological sites in Africa are a cause of irreparable damage to African history and hence to the history of humankind. Whole sections of our history have been wiped out and can never be reconstituted. These objects cannot be understood once they have been removed from their archaeological context and divorced from the whole to which they belong. Only professional archaeological excavations can help recover their identity, their date and their location. But so long as there is demand from the international art market these objects will be looted and offered for sale.

In response of this urgent situation, a list of categories of African archaeological objects particularly at risk from looting was drawn up at the Workshop on the Protection of the African Cultural Heritage held in Amsterdam from 22 to 24 October 1997. Organised by ICOM (International Council of Museums), within the framework of its AFRICOM programme, it brought together professionals from African, European and North American museums to set up a common policy for fighting against the illicit traffic in African cultural property, and to promote regional and international agreements.

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The Red List includes the following categories of archaeological items:

 

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These objects are among the cultural goods most affected by looting and theft. They are protected by national legislation, banned from export, and may under no circumstances be put on sale.
An appeal is therefore being made to museums, auction houses, art dealers and collectors to stop buying them.

This list is of objects which are particularly at risk, but in no way should it be considered exhaustive. The question of the legality of export arises with regard to any archaeological item.

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ICOM and the Protection of Heritage

 

ICOM is an international and non-profit organisation dedicated to the development and advancement of museums and the museum profession. Founded in 1946, ICOM counts 15,000 members, providing a world-wide communications network for museum professionals of all disciplines and specialities. It is a non-governmental organisation (NGO) in formal association with UNESCO, and has been granted advisory status by the United Nations Economic and Social Council. Its Paris-based (UNESCO House) Secretariat and Museum Information Centre ensure the day-to-day running of the organisation and the co-ordination of its activities and programmes.

 

The fight against illicit traffic of cultural property is a priority for ICOM. Museums must be at the forefront of this fight by ensuring that they have a scrupulous acquisitions policy which conforms to the ICOM Code of Professional Ethics.

 

In Africa, in the framework of AFRICOM (the ICOM programme for Africa), a number of concrete initiatives have been launched to stem looting and thefts. Regional workshops have been organised to reinforce co-operation between museums, police and customs. The improvement of inventory procedures with the finalisation of the Handbook of standards. Documenting African collections has been an essential tool for protecting museum collections. The proper circulation of information on stolen works through the publication of One Hundred Missing Objects. Looting in Africa has raised the awareness of professionals and public alike, and has been a factor in the recovery of items. In October 1997, a new stage was reached in Amsterdam where African, European and North-American professionals rallied in favour of the protection of African cultural heritage. As part of the development of a joint policy to combat trafficking of African cultural objects, recommendations were formulated in the fields of North/South collaboration, training, awareness-raising and research. A Red List of particularly endangered archaeological objects was drawn up.

 

Since October 1999, AFRICOM has become the International Council of African Museums, an autonomous pan-African organisation for museums, with headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya.

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