Chair: Friedrich Schipper (Uni Vienna, Austria)
The illegal excavation of important archaeological sites, and the massive looting of ancient cultural and religious sites, including artifacts from churches and museums, is taking place all over the world. Scientific investigation about, conservation of and public access to our common cultural heritage is increasingly endangered. The monetary value of illicit trade in cultural assets must be calculated in billions of euros, matching the size of the illicit trade in arms, drugs, menial labor and sex slavery, as well as in rare and endangered animals. The damage to cultural property is inestimable. In the last few years even Austria has developed as a major center for illicit trade between east and west.
So far, we believe, the most effective and long-range international instrument against illicit trade in cultural property is the “Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property” adopted by UNESCO in 1970. Between 1970 and 1983, the convention was ratified by more than 100 countries such as Italy, Greece, Portugal, Spain, France and Finland as well as Australia and Canada. Other countries with large and important art markets hesitated to ratify the convention for many years. For example, the USA finally ratified it in 1983.
More than 36 years later, the ratification of the convention is still due in Austria. Until recently, Austria was in “good company” with other countries, inside as well as outside Europe, in delaying ratification. But in the last year, the last western nations have made a push toward ratification: Great Britain, Switzerland – and recently, a draft bill on the ratification of the 1970 Convention has been delivered to the Deutsche Bundestag.
The regulations in these countries that mean to support the convention and put it into play differ: this has caused experts in the fields of cultural heritage to criticize the individual rules of implementation. In Germany, for example, the draft was ironically named the “Raubgrabungsförderungsgesetz“ [“The Illegal Excavation Endorsement Law”] because its enactment would result in the opposite of what the UNESCO-Convention was designed to achieve: instead of the protection of cultural property it would de facto promote illegal excavations and illicit trade of cultural assets.
The purpose of this session is to ascertain the international status quo. As a starting point, an up-to-date report from the hot spot Iraq will be delivered where several thousand looted artifacts continue to be smuggled day by day. The focus will then be put on the legal situation in Austria, Germany and Switzerland. In addition inside-reports from the USA and from Turkey will be widen the view.
The intended spin-off effect of this session is to gather experience and information from representatives of the nations where the convention has been signed that will be usable for the ratification process of the UNESCO-Convention of 1970 in Austria, which has to be accomplished as soon as possible and under the most favorable conditions.