Antiquities trade: the ratification of the 1970 UNESCO Convention in Germany

In 1970, UNESCO adopted the Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property.

The convention entered into force in 1972, and some countries took their time to ratify it. Ten years after it was adopted, the convention was ratified by 43 countries. And 37 years passed until Germany ratified the convention in 2007 as the 115th country

Not exactly what you’d expect from country that likes to see itself as a leading nation in the realm of culture.

Nevertheless, it has finally entered into force in Germany in 2008 as the Act implementing the UNESCO Convention of 14 November 1970 on the means of prohibiting and preventing the illicit import, export and transfer of ownership of cultural property and implementing Council Directive 93/7/EEC of 15 March 1993 on the return of cultural objects unlawfully removed from the territory of a Member State (Act on the Return of Cultural Property)

So now everybody’s happy that we finally have a strong law to stop the trade in antiquities, for example objects from looted sites?

Looted burial site in coastal Peru, December 2012.

Looted burial site in coastal Peru, December 2012.

Let’s look at the text. Section 20 talks about criminal provisions, says something about the export from and the destruction of cultural property in Germany and then and states that “Any person who […] brings an object into the territory of the Federal Republic of Germany without a licence pursuant to section 14 subsection (1) shall be punished by a term of imprisonment of up to three years or by a fine.”

So let’s turn to section 14 subsection (1): “A licence shall be required in order to bring objects entered in the list of important cultural property of the States Parties into the territory of the Federal Republic of Germany.”

And what is on that list? Section 14 subsection (2) tells us: “The list of important cultural property of the States Parties shall be compiled by the Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and the Media and updated as necessary. This task may be assigned to the central federal authority. The list shall contain the individually identifiable objects which have been specifically designated by the States Parties as being of importance within the meaning of Article 1 of the Cultural Property Convention as well as a reference to whether export from the State of origin is prohibited in principle on the basis of legislation for the protection of cultural property. Each entry and any changes thereto shall be published in the Federal Gazette.”

What does this mean for objects looted from archaeological sites in other countries? According to this law, each object will have to be listed individually. This is fine for known objects which have been stolen (for example from a museum), but of course is not possible to list all looted objects from all countries – mainly because nobody knows what has been looted.

Interestingly, the law mainly talks about export from, import to and destruction within Germany. Those things are criminal offences. What about trade within Germany? There are recording obligations in the art and antiques trade and in the auction trade, but only for objects worth more than 1000 €. And failing to fulfil the recording obligations is not a criminal offence but only subject to regulatory fines.

Now, all this is basically within the scope of the convention. But does this really dry up the market? Of course, Germany could have drawn up a stronger law. There actually was a bit of a lobbying and PR effort by archaeologists and the like to get rid of the passage on individual objects having to be listed. My personal letter to my member of parliament remained unanswered. No stronger law for now. Perhaps we need a stronger convention?


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