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 DOES THE LURE OF profit threaten our right to enjoy the cultural heritage of our community and our sense of belonging?  As in other kinds of trade, only respect for voluntary, fair codes of conduct will bind buyers and sellers to ethical behaviour.


 In the spring of 1985, Canada Customs officers in Vancouver seized two shipments of South American artifacts on alleged violations of the Customs Act and the Cultural Property Export and Import Act.  The items had originated in Peru and travelled circuitously through Bolivia and Germany, ultimately destined for the United States.  There were 83 items in all – painted ceramic vessels, textiles, and feathered objects - all of them believed to have been looted from unexcavated tombs and graves along the Peruvian coast.  The earliest dated back to the first millennium B.C., and all were from pre-Incan and pre-Hispanic cultures.  The survival of the highly perishable textiles and feathers was due to the unusually cool, dry conditions in the area where the tombs were located.

The Government of Peru formally requested the return of the material, and Canada honoured that request under the terms of our Cultural Property Export and Import Act.  The Act had been legislated in compliance with the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property.  This is an example of a UNESCO Convention leading directly to Canadian legislation.  Now recognized as a leader in the fight against illicit traffic in cultural property by the international community, Canada chairs UNESCO's Intergovernmental Committee for Promoting the Return of Cultural Property to its Countries of Origin or its Restitution in Case of Illicit Appropriation.


The UNESCO Convention defines cultural property as property that is, on religious or secular grounds, of importance for archaeology, prehistory, history, literature, art or science.  Cultural property therefore includes everything from works of art to archaeological artifacts, military objects to archival material, ethnographic material to decorative arts and scientific instruments.

 "The illicit import, export and transfer of ownership of cultural property," the Convention states, "is one of the main causes of the impoverishment of the countries of ownership of such cultural property."

Removing such property from its place of origin is also a loss for humanity at large.  Taken from its cultural and geographic context, cultural property may be stripped of its meaning, and its significance lost to human knowledge.  It is also a violation of Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which affirms "the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, and to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits."


 Looting archaeological sites, stealing artworks from museums and ethnological objects from rural areas have become frequent events the world over.   This is nothing new, of course.  Looting of tombs is recorded from the time of the Egyptian pharaohs.  Conquering armies and colonial powers throughout history have brought home artifacts from around the world.   The most famous, perhaps, are the so-called "Elgin marbles" taken from the Parthenon in Athens to grace the British Museum in I802.  The reason the phenomenon is so worrying today is the extent to which it has grown over the last few decades.   According to Interpol, the pillage of cultural objects, and the trade in these objects, now ranks with drugs and arms as one of the three most serious illicit international trading activities.  The trade is valued at approximately $4.5 billion annually.

 The underlying cause of this trade is the rapid growth in the art market.  Cultural property of all kinds has been the subject of intense speculation, especially when an object is considered rare, as investors attempt to make large profits in a short time.  There is growing demand in the countries that are home to the world's largest art markets, especially the United States.  This demand drives the activities of looters and intermediaries of all types around the world.  Poverty and weak state systems in many of the countries that are sources of cultural property clear the way for looting and smuggling.

 The goal of the 1970 UNESCO Convention is to reinforce international solidarity in the fight against the traffic in cultural property by setting up a system of co-operation between states as well as ethical standards on the movement of cultural property.  Any state that is party to the Convention and whose heritage is endangered by looting of archaeological or ethnographic objects can call upon other states that are party to the Convention to seize illicitly traded objects and return them.  To date, eighty-eight countries have ratified the Convention, including, in recent years, the United States and France.  These, however, are the only countries with substantial art markets to join.   It is now a matter of urgency that the countries that have not yet ratified the Convention, particularly the major art market countries, do so.

 The UNESCO Convention of 1970 has no retroactive effect; it only enters into effect on the day of its official ratification.  To correct this limitation, the International Institute for the Unification of Private Law adopted the UNIDROIT Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects in 1995- Perhaps its most important clause is the principle that anyone in possession of a stolen item must in all cases restore it.  This rule forces buyers to check that the goods have come onto the market legally; otherwise, they will have to be returned.  It also applies to all goods, whether they were stolen last week or a century ago.   Canada is now in the process of considering ratification of the UNIDROI-1- Convention.  UNESCO is pushing all states to sign on.

 The UNIDROIT Convention also provides for claims for restitution of sacred or communally important cultural objects belonging to indigenous communities within the contracting states.  Acceptance of this principle would have significant consequences in Canada, where thousands of sacred and cultural artifacts of native communities are held by museums across the country.   The issue of "repatriation" of these cultural objects is currently a major issue in Canada, and there has already been a good deal of movement on it.  The recent treaty negotiated with the Nisga'a people of British Columbia, for example, requires Canadian museums to return more than 250 Nisga'a artifacts bought or stolen from the community over the past century.  Many other native communities are negotiating directly with museums for the return of important cultural property.

 Unfortunately, the return of cultural property to native communities in Canada, and of the seized Peruvian artifacts mentioned at the outset, are minor victories in relation to the current scope of illicit trafficking worldwide.  National governments and international organizations like UNESCO have a major role to play in combating this trade, but individuals must also become better informed about it and take action to stop it at its source.

 THE RESTITUTION OF cultural property taken illicitly from its place of origin can serve to restore a sense of meaning and dignity to the people of the society and, in this way, contribute to building a culture of peace.


 The International Council of Museums Web page on "Fighting Against the Illicit Traffic of Cultural Property" -

 Legal Protection for Cultural Heritage

Movable Cultural Property Program (Department of Canadian Heritage)