Thursday, April 30, 2009

Belgium Ratifies the 1970 UNESCO Convention

Last month, Belgium became the 117th country to ratify the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property.  The Convention will enter into force for Belgium on June 30, 2009.  Belgium is one of a growing number of European antiquities-market countries that have taken steps toward restricting the movement of looted antiquities through their borders – Norway ratified the Convention in 2007, Germany ratified the Convention and passed implementing legislation in 2007, and the Netherlands is considering a bill that would ratify and implement both the 1970 UNESCO Convention and the 1995 UNIDROIT Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects. 

Belgium’s instrument of ratification limits the definition of “cultural property” under the Convention to the terms of the “Annex to Council Regulation (EEC) No 3911/92 of 9 December 1992, as amended, on the export of cultural goods and in the Annex to Council Directive 93/7/EEC of 15 March 1993, as amended, on the return of cultural objects unlawfully removed from the territory of a Member State.”  At this time, there is no further information available as to how Belgium will implement the Convention.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Holocaust Restitution Bill Up for Consideration in UK Parliament

The Holocaust (Stolen Art) Restitution Bill, introduced in January by Andrew Dismore MP, will have its Second Reading in the House of Commons on May 15.  The impetus for the bill was a 2005 recommendation by the UK’s Spoliation Advisory Panel to restitute the Benevento Missal to Benevento Cathedral in Italy.  The missal, a 12th century manuscript, was acquired by a British citizen in 1944 from an Italian bookseller and made its way to the British Museum Library in the late 1940s.  In light of the legal restrictions on deaccessioning publicly held works – in the case of the missal, a law prohibiting the British Library from deaccessioning manuscripts received from the British Museum - the Panel proposed the creation of a new law authorizing the British Library and the British Museum to restitute Nazi-era spoliated works. 

Currently, British national museums are legally constrained from deaccessioning items in their collections that are claimed for restitution and the only form of relief available to claimants is monetary compensation.  Deaccessions are further subject to individual museum policies that prefer the transfer of objects to institutions within the public domain over private organizations or individuals.  The full text of the Restitution Bill is not yet available, but its official summary indicates that it aims to “provide for the transfer from public museum and gallery collections of arts, artefacts and other objects stolen between 1933 and 1945 by or on behalf of the Nazi regime, its members and sympathizers” and “provide for the return of such artefacts and objects to the lawful owners, their heirs and successors.”  This would clear a path not only for the return of the objects themselves, but also for the return of objects to private entities who are deemed the true owners of looted objects held in British public institutions.

An earlier attempt to loosen the restrictions on restituting Holocaust-era spoliated works through amendments to the draft Heritage Protection Bill failed when that bill was dropped in late 2008.  (The Heritage Protection Bill would also have enabled the U.K. to ratify the 1954 Hague Convention on the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict.)  As the Holocaust (Stolen Art) Restitution Bill progresses through Parliament, updates on its status can be obtained at  

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Reflections on the Anniversary of the Iraq Museum Looting

As we observe the sixth anniversary of the looting of the Iraq Museum in Baghdad and remember also the looting of many other cultural institutions and archaeological sites throughout Iraq, it is worth reflecting on some of the changes that have occurred, many as the result of the worldwide attention that focused on the problems of looting of sites and institutions not only in Iraq but throughout the world.

Probably the most significant change is that the United States became a party to the 1954 Hague Convention on the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict when it deposited its instrument of ratification on March 13, 2009. Undoubtedly the longest-awaited event (for over fifty-four years), this signaled at least a shift in attitude by the United States which, although it has followed those portions of the Convention that are accepted as part of customary international law, will now make greater efforts to prepare its military to protect cultural property in both current and future conflicts. The United Kingdom is also making progress toward ratification of the convention and its protocols.

The response to the looting of the Iraq Museum also saw swift world-wide action to prevent trade in cultural materials illegally removed from Iraq, including a UN Security Council Resolution and legislation or regulations enacted by the European Union, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, and the United States, among others. No other event in the recent history of cultural heritage preservation seems to have generated such a quick and universal response, demonstrating that when sufficiently motivated, the nations of the world can act to protect their shared heritage.

Finally, we note that three organizations were founded in the United States, all of which have taken on different aspects of the movement to preserve cultural heritage. SAFE (Saving Antiquities for Everyone) was founded as a grassroots movement to raise public awareness of and interest in preserving heritage. The US Committee of the Blue Shield, a part of the International Committee of the Blue Shield, was founded to address the challenges of protecting cultural property during armed conflict and during natural disaster. It has taken the lead in working with the US military to train our forces in cultural heritage awareness and preservation. Finally, the Lawyers Committee for Cultural Heritage Preservation, although founded to address cultural heritage preservation both domestically within the United States and internationally, was created as part of this same movement. While the effect of war on Iraq’s cultural heritage was tragic, and the efforts to preserve and protect its heritage is still an ongoing struggle, the impact of the looting of the Iraq Museum was surely one that none could have predicted.