UKRG Art Crime Conference

Emily Gould, Senior Researcher from the Institute of Art and Law talked about Heritage Crime and the ‘dealing’ offences under UK law during the UKRG Event Stolen Heritage: Art Crime, Restitution and Spoliation on Friday 15th February 2019 at the Museum of London Docklands.

Unfortunately cultural and heritage destruction is an everyday matter; whether it is the looting and destruction of cultural artefacts in the Middle-East, removal of religious statues in India or thieves targeting the local village church in the UK. Luckily some crucial work is being undertaken to prevent these crimes, bring justice to the perpetrators and to encourage the restitution of objects.

Several laws have been enacted since 2002 to protect against illicit traffic in cultural property including the Dealing in Cultural Objects (Offences) Act in 2003, the Iraq (UN sanctions) Order 2003 and the Export Control (Syria Sanctions) Order 2014 to prevent dealing in cultural property illegally removed from those countries and the Cultural Property (Armed Conflicts) Act 2017 against the dealing in cultural property unlawfully exported from an occupied territory.

It is not easy to prosecute dealers of stolen properties. When the due diligence is tampered with or incomplete it is difficult to prove the objects origin, also the dealer can only be prosecuted when it can be proven he is fully aware that the object was indeed unlawfully removed and with this knowledge did not hand the object in to the authorities. Under the Dealing in Cultural Objects Act, only one person has been convicted; Chris Cooper was sentenced to a prison sentence following a looting spree in churches in Herefordshire. Later this year he will be charged again and we await the verdict with eager interest in the hope more prosecutions will follow.

Since 2017 the Cultural Property (Armed Conflicts) Act has come into force. This Act enables the UK to ratify the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict and creates a new offence of dealing in cultural property unlawfully exported from an occupied territory. While no immediate result is expected in the form of prosecutions; it is a strong reminder that those dealing in the art trade have a strong responsibility to check the provenance and challenge any doubt. The difficulty with the existing legislation is that it has a legal complexity and it is difficult to prove the source of stolen artefacts; we need to create more awareness and knowledge of the new legislation and perhaps even change the way we use the existing legislative tools.

During the second part, Alex Herman talked about the difficulty surrounding the restitution of colonial artefacts in museums. This discussion was raised after the French president Emmanuel Macron held a speech in 2017 in Burkina Faso stating that he wanted all the conditions for the temporary or permanent restitution of African Heritage to Africa be met in 5 years.

This speech led to the commissioning of the Sarr Savoy Report by Macron in 2018 by Felwine Sarr and Benedicte Savoy and released in November of that year. This report, published in French and (a strange translation of) English was mainly written from a post-colonial view. The criteria they noted for ‘restitutability’ (yes this is not an English word) was firstly a Swift Restitution, which meant the objects had to be taken through military aggression, acquired through military or administrative agents or acquired on ethnographic missions (pre-1960) or loaned from African Museums and never returned.

Secondly, further research is required for items that came to museums after 1960 by gift or donation but reason to believe they were in Africa before that date. If the date is unclear it depends on how strong the interest of the requesting nation is.

And thirdly, items that were to be retained for the French collections were subject to a free, fair and documented transaction, purchased with due diligence on the art market after 1970 UNESCO Convention or gifted by foreign state of head.

But, how does this work in practice and is it legal? According to the French law the inalienability of public collections is safeguarded and items can’t just simply be returned. There are estimated over 90,000 items of African Heritage in French Collections.

Working with difficult heritage laws is an issue for several European countries and a loophole had to be found. An Italian institution had the same problem when returning the Venus of Cyrene to Libya; an international agreement eventually provided for this.

More problems have arisen than are being solved by the report; there is quite often no provenance documentation and a ‘free, fair and documented’ transaction seems difficult to prove. Also the work will be returned to the African states, not the local community or individuals. And for the law to change a broader political scope is needed. But Macron has promised to return the Benin Bronzes and also the Cultural Minister of Senegal is looking for a solution for over 10.000 objects which he wants to request. The French came up with a solution to circumvent their law to give items on a renewable 5 year loan that in theory would be indefinitely.

The French Museums are not pleased with the report but have been quiet due to the sensitivity of the subject. They are concerned about the scope of the report; which could have a serious impact on the French Museums. And how will this impact other nations? Macron only mentioned African Heritage, but what about Oceania’s heritage? There is still a lot to be done and long term solutions to be found.

Written by Wietske McMahon, Assistant Registrar (Exhibitions), National Galleries of Scotland