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The ICOM Red List

April 2000

Eight categories of African archaeological objects are under particularly serious threat from looting today. These figure on the ICOM Red List, which aims to inform museums, art dealers, and police and customs officials about the systematic theft to which certain types of cultural property fall victim.

These artefacts are amongst the cultural property that is the worst affected by looting and theft. They are protected by legislation, banned from export, and may under no circumstances be put on sale. An appeal is therefore being made to museums, auction houses and collectors to stop buying them.

Illicit archaeological excavations in Africa irreparably undermine the historical sources of the continent and those of humankind as a whole. The objects looted in Africa are resold in Europe and in North America. The historical context of the places in which the objects were found is thus wiped out and can never be reconstituted. As a result we will never be able to learn about the civilisations that produced these artworks.

Today, thanks to financial support from the Prince Claus Fund for Culture and Development and the French Ministry for Foreign Affairs, a detailed dossier has been put together containing information about the African objects on the Red List.

A tool for providing information and a means of verification, the dossier gives details on each category, including where the objects come from, their physical features, and the national and international legislation protecting them. A section called The Urgency of the Situation highlights the fact that this type of artwork should no longer be bought so as not to encourage looting.

The dossier was drawn up by African, European and North American museum professionals during a workshop in Amsterdam on the Protection of the African Heritage organised by ICOM in October 1997.

The file will be widely distributed to art dealers, auction houses and museums in Africa, Europe and North America as well as to police and customs officials. This awareness-raising campaign on African archaeological heritage fits in with the active policy that ICOM has been applying for several years to combat the theft of cultural property.

In this context, the recent agreements that ICOM has signed successively with the World Customs Organisation (WCO) and INTERPOL involving police and customs officials in the fight against the illicit traffic in cultural property mark a new step forward in heritage protection. The fact that international organisations responsible for controlling the situation are aware of the vast extent of the traffic should mean that museums have new resources at their disposal to curb the scourge.

The Red List contains objects that are in particularly grave danger, but it is not exhaustive. Every time an archaeological object is put on sale the question of the legality of its export arises.

The fight against the illicit traffic in cultural property

The extent of illicit trafficking has never been greater. It is taking place in both developed and developing countries, affecting churches in Italy, castles in France, archaeological sites in Africa and Latin America, and temples in Asia.

In order to fight against the trafficking, museum professionals in ICOM give priority to concrete, efficient action to raise awareness. Museums have to be the leading players in the fight and must apply strict rules to any object they are offered for sale, in compliance with ICOM's Code of Professional Ethics.

Generally, action by ICOM to fight against the theft and looting of cultural property takes place upstream of any police action, in an international, non-governmental context.

The main action required for safeguarding objects is to strengthen safety measures in museums and put in place standards for inventories of collections.

At the same time, there have been regional workshops in Africa bringing together police officers, museums and customs officials to reinforce cooperation between the different players responsible for protecting heritage. Furthermore, in collaboration with UNESCO, ICOM also endeavours to urge States to adopt the national and international legal instruments that protect heritage, such as the 1970 UNESCO Convention and the 1995 UNIDROIT Convention.

To raise public awareness ICOM also publishes a series of books called One Hundred Missing Objects. Through photos and descriptions the publications show items that have been stolen from public collections or looted from sites. To date there are three books in the series: Looting in Angkor (Sept. 1993), Looting in Africa (Sept. 1994) and Looting in Latin America (January 1998). The books have been widely distributed to the professionals concerned (museums, art dealers, galleries, auction houses, police, etc.) and have resulted in several objects being identified. When Looting in Angkor came out several items listed in the book were found, such as statuette DCA 7081 (P. 46) which was put on sale at Sotheby's in New York (Lot 96) on 2nd June 1992 and found in Switzerland in January 1995. Similarly, when Looting in Africa came out various items that had been stolen from museums in Africa or looted from sites were found and restored to their countries of origin.

These restitutions are very encouraging, but nonetheless remain symbolic when compared with the great number of objects that are stolen. With the Red List, ICOM is hoping to draw attention to the even more serious looting of archaeological sites which results in the destruction of precious historical data.

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Updated: 11 July 2005