British Archaeology, no 30, December 1997: Comment

Stemming the flood of looted antiquities

The Government may soon agree to change British policy, writes Colin Renfrew

Over recent months, it has increasingly been recognised that the sale of looted and illegally exported antiquities in Britain is a national scandal.

There is, however, a real possibility that the Government will now address this scandal with a major change of policy. This follows the unanimous approval last month, by the Standing Conference on Portable Antiquities, of a resolution calling upon the Government to sign and ratify the 1995 UNIDROIT Convention on Stolen and Illegally Exported Cultural Objects, and also to ratify the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Illicit Transfer of Cultural Property.

The Standing Conference, set up on the initiative of the CBA, has already achieved some notable successes. It was frequently quoted by Government ministers during the debates prior to the passing last year of the Treasure Act. They clearly (and rightly) regarded it as speaking for the museums, societies and other bodies most concerned with, or responsible for, the historic and archaeological heritage of this country.

Moreover, the principles affirmed by the Standing Conference formed the basis for the pilot scheme on the voluntary reporting of portable antiquities which is now in progress. This may become the blueprint for a national scheme, still on a voluntary basis, which would make up in some respects for the glaring absence of any comprehensive antiquities legislation in this country - and perhaps even make such legislation unnecessary.

Despite this progress with antiquities originating in Britain, the flagrant sale here of illicit antiquities coming from overseas remains unchecked. Ministers have admitted to Parliament that the sale of antiquities looted in the course of clandestine excavations overseas and illegally exported from their country of origin is simply not an offence under British law.

Of course, as the Standing Conference’s principles emphasise, it is the loss of information resulting from such looting which is the tragedy: the lack of any opportunity to learn from the context, whether settlement or burial or whatever, in which the finds are made. This is the loss to the world’s cultural heritage and to our knowledge of the past: ownership of these sadly uprooted objects is a secondary question.

But how to stop the looting? Site protection in the source country is important but can never be comprehensive. It is the collectors who buy these antiquities, and the dealers who traffic in them, whose money fuels the looting process. Progress can only be made by diminishing demand.

That is where UNIDROIT comes in. It declares that, on an international basis, the rightful owner may demand the return of stolen antiquities, and that illicitly excavated antiquities are to be regarded as stolen. Dealers in unprovenanced antiquities will find them much more difficult to sell; and private collectors who buy will find themselves on the wrong side of the law. That is not to say that all problems will disappear overnight when the Convention is adopted. But the present shameful legal situation will at least be ameliorated.

The Convention is not retrospective: it may reduce looting now and in the future, but it cannot undo the damage wrought in the past by illicit excavations. It therefore has no bearing on the controversial theme of the restitution of national treasures already in foreign museums or in private collections (although it might make them more difficult to sell). Some will see that as a defect, but in practical terms it means that museums can support the Convention without fearing claims for the large-scale return of their existing collections. It is their future acquisitions which will be affected.

Of course times are changing, and moralities are evolving. Reputable museums now follow the Code of Practice of the Museums Association (and of the International Council of Museums) which prevents their buying, or even accepting as gifts or bequests, antiquities which are without provenance and which have recently appeared on the market (‘recently’ often being defined in practice as after 1970, the date of the UNESCO Convention). The British Museum has followed this precept for some time; the Getty Museum (a significant buyer) is following suit.

It is notable too that Sotheby’s, after the embarassing disclosures about their conduct made this year by Peter Watson in his television documentaries and in his book Inside Story, have now announced that they will hold no more auctions of antiquities in London. That is good news, and we should welcome such progressive steps without recrimination, as encouraging signs that there may be more progress to come.

The new Government, in one of its first measures, announced that Britain would rejoin UNESCO (which indeed happened on 1st August) and that it would be reconsidering Britain’s position on these two Conventions. The unanimous recommendations by the Standing Conference are therefore timely; and we must hope that the Government will once again take them seriously.

Colin Renfrew (Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn) is Disney Professor of Archaeology at the University of Cambridge

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© Council for British Archaeology, 1997