Key initiatives announced at UNESCO’s international conference to fight against illicit trafficking of cultural property

On 14 September 2021, UNESCO, in partnership with the European Union, organized an online conference to strengthen global cooperation in the fight against illicit trafficking of cultural property. This conference brought together all stakeholders in this field – Member States, as well as the art market, experts, institutional partners and civil society. Discussions focused on new challenges, an evaluation of existing prevention and repression mechanisms and tools, and above all, the highlighting of needs and concrete activities to be implemented.

On this occasion, several initiatives were announced by UNESCO’s partners and its Member States, including the adoption of a European Union action plan against illicit trafficking of cultural property in 2022, which will be conducted in consultation with UNESCO, various upcoming meetings on the fight against illicit trafficking by the African Union Commission, which should result in a position paper of the African Union in early 2022, or the organization of the Second Cuzco Forum during the first quarter of 2022 by Peru, in cooperation with UNESCO.

“Over the past fifty years, great progress has been made when it comes to inventorying, awareness, and training, but illicit trafficking itself, has also changed,” said Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of UNESCO.

“We must therefore reinforce our action, by focusing on two major priorities. The first is to build the most wide-ranging coalition, to make our action as effective as possible. The second is to strengthen the tools we have to fight against illicit trafficking.”

Margaritis Schinas, Vice-President of the European Commission, noted that “Illicit trafficking in cultural property […] impoverishes the countries of origin and fuels money laundering, tax evasion and the financing of terrorist activities. As Europe is a major destination and transit market for cultural property, the European Commission, in close cooperation with UNESCO and actors from the art market, will present an Action Plan to increase transparency, traceability and trust.”

Mr. Schinas recalled that this UNESCO conference will contribute to the preparation of the Action Plan with the aim to strengthen cooperation between law enforcement and cultural heritage experts, but also the mobilization of art market actors and citizens. The Representative of the African Union Commission, Angela Martins, announced that expert meetings on the restitution and illicit trafficking of cultural property in Africa will be held in November 2021, with the aim of producing an African Union position paper on the subject in early 2022.

A first panel was dedicated to regional needs and challenges. George Abungu, Kenyan archaeologist, and Mamadu Jao, Commissioner for Education, Science and Culture of ECOWAS, discussed the cooperation prospects for capacity building, community awareness and technology development, and stressed the importance for all African countries to ratify the 1970 UNESCO and 1995 UNIDROIT Conventions. During the discussions, Dayan Wen, Deputy Director General of the Department of Foreign Affairs of the National Cultural Heritage Administration of China, recalled the value of bilateral agreements to enhance more collaboration between States, and Alejandro Celorio Alcantara, Legal Advisor to the Secretariat of Foreign Affairs of Mexico, highlighted the need to strengthen national legislations in this area.

The second panel focused on due diligence issues. Representatives of the art market, alongside those of public institutions, shared their views on the challenges regarding provenance research of cultural property. The experts particularly highlighted the problems of unique objects cut off from their archaeological context and the fraudulent provenance used to circulate stolen objects. The discussion showed that the art market must mobilize to protect itself from traffickers who disguise the provenance and traceability of cultural property. All the participants recognized that a good provenance guarantees the legality of a sale and its commercial success, thus making research on this subject of interest to all.

Regarding provenance research, in addition to consulting available databases listing lost artworks, such as INTERPOL’s Stolen Works of Art Database and ICOM’s Red Lists of Cultural Objects at Risk, Emmanuel Kasarhérou, President of Musée du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac, also emphasized the importance of working hand in hand with the country of origin.

The conference also addressed the challenges of new technologies and the traceability of cultural property, particularly in the context of archaeological looting. In the third session, Vincent Michel, Archaeologist and Professor at University of Poitiers (France), stressed the need to document sites and inventory objects. Panelists showed how online sales and groups operating on social networks such as Facebook have allowed the development of criminal networks and the advancement of traffickers’ digital modus operandi.

The experts highlighted the existing data on the scale of trafficking, which can be found for example, in the 2019 ATHAR Project report. Katie Paul, Co-founder of the ATHAR Project, stressed the need for online platforms to recruit experts in the field of illicit trafficking. INTERPOL underscored discussions underway with UNESCO to launch an innovative joint project to further develop existing databases on stolen cultural objects.

All the experts recalled the importance of raising public awareness of the consequences of illicit trafficking. The increase of online purchases of works of art makes it all the more necessary for potential buyers to question the provenance of the objects and to refrain from buying without serious guarantees.

In conclusion of the discussion, the Ambassador of France to UNESCO, Véronique Roger-Lacan, confirmed that the objective of France during its Presidency of the European Union in the first half of 2022 will be to promote cooperation in the fight against illicit trafficking: “It is a matter of developing European cooperation against illicit trafficking of cultural property, between European States and European Union Member States and the rest of the world” she concluded.

This took place in the context of the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the 1970 Convention, during which many international and regional conferences have been organized, such as the Cuzco Forum in October 2020. In this regard, Ramiro Silva Rivera, Minister Counsellor and Chargé d’Affaires of the Permanent Delegation of Peru to UNESCO, announced that a second edition of the Cuzco Forum will be held in February 2022, in cooperation with UNESCO: “This will be an opportunity to echo the messages of the previous conferences and to conclude the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the 1970 Convention”.