June 20, 2012

UNESCO promotes public awareness of illicit trafficking of cultural property with 2011 Documentary "Stealing the Past"

by Catherine Schofield Sezgin, ARCA Blog Editor

Here’s a link to the website and video for “Stealing the Past”, co-produced by dev.tv; One Planet Pictures; and the Swiss Confederation.  This English language documentary is intended to create public awareness about the illicit trafficking of cultural property worldwide.  This program spotlights Italy, Colombia and the United Kingdom to see ‘what police, museums and auction houses are doing to tackle’ looting of heritage.

"Stealing the Past" has Gihane Zaki, Eyptian Ministry of Culture, talking about how people 'rallied' to protect the collection of the Museum of Antiquities in Cairo during the Arab Spring Uprising in early 2011.  "When they heard in the media that the museum was looted, they went directly there and it was really fantastic to see all of the young people gather around the museum to prevent more looting." The museum reported only 18 items stolen, according to the documentary.

From Iraq, up to 7,000 ancient objects were "still at large" from the archaeological museum.  An art dealer in California was found last year trying to sell 25 of them, according to the film's narrator.

Others included in this program: Karl-Heinz Kind, Interpol Criminal Organisations & Drugs Unit; Jane Levine, Director of Compliance for Sotheby's; Irena Bokova, Director General, UNESCO; Rita Cosentino, Director, Etruscan National Museum; Sir Mark Jones, Director, Victoria and Albert Museum; Colonel Raffaele Mancino of the Carabinieri Heritage Unit; Diego Herrera, Director General, Colombian Institute of Anthropology; Captain Erica Correa Bustos, Colombian National Police; Carlos Emilio Piazzini, Deputy Director, Colombian Institute of Anthropology; Dr. Andrew Richardson, Canterbury Archaeological Trust; Mark Harrison, Chief Superintendent, Kent Police; Maurice Worsley, Kent Amateur Metal Detecting Support Unit;

“Stealing the Past” includes a statement from the March 2011 commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the 1970 Convention.

"One-hundred twenty countries have signed a convention which has no teeth,” Irena Bokova, Director General, UNESCO told the participants at the Paris meeting.  “This is one of the specific conventions which doesn't have a specific enforcing mechanism."
Other highlights:

UNESCO works closely with INTERPOL, the international policing agency that maintains a database of stolen items totaling around 40,000 as of last year. According to UNESCO, Italy is 'home' to 60% of the world's art treasures. The Carabinieri Heritage Unit has a stolen art database of more than 1.5 million objects. "Cerveteri is known throughout the world for the activity of illegal excavation," said Rita Cosentino, Director of the Etruscan National Museum. "These activities have been devastating for a site like Cerveteri." The Carabinieri conduct frequent investigations into the area of Cerveteri aimed at finding illegal excavations, finding the thieves, and seizing any stolen objects, according to the documentary's narrator. The crew was 'given permission to follow one such operation' of 'ten officers, four cars, and four horses' with a helicopter surveying the targeted area from above for 'illegal excavations taking place'. When the road runs out, the horses are at an advantage over 'rough terrain' in the event of a chase. A Carabinieri officer climbs into a looted tomb and finds a 3rd century BC cup. "There are sporadic incidents," Cosentino says. "But the majority these days are done by amateurs. On the whole, the phenomenon of looting, thanks to the Carabinieri, has practically been defeated."

“The threats we need to combat are those criminal offences that pose a danger to Italian cultural heritage,” says Colonel Raffaele Mancino of the Carabinieri Heritage Unit. “From theft, to robbery, to vandalism. To support our work we have a number of legislative tools for the safeguarding of cultural goods and above all to combat the illicit trafficking of cultural goods. In recent years criminal organizations at the international level have become interested in this traffic as a way of laundering money from other criminal activities. We have found Italian artworks all over the world. But I have to say that with high-level government collaboration we have been able to bring back to Italy thousands and thousands of works of art.”

From inside the Carabinieri Heritage Units warehouse, Colonel Mancino points out a headless statue of Zeus stolen some years ago from the Norwegian Institute of Culture in Rome and a Greek-style vase intercepted by custom officials at an airport.

The Colombian Ministry of Culture estimates that 10,000 archaeological treasures are smuggled out of the country every year and less than 1% of these artworks are recovered. In 2007, the Colombian police created a special unit to deal with the illegal trafficking of the country’s heritage. The unit works in collaboration with the Institute of Anthropology. It has three offices.

Metal detecting in the UK has turned into a ‘thriving’ hobby (as has ‘night hawking’ the term for illegally using metal detectors at night on archaeological sites). The British government is willing to purchase ancient items found in the ground. “There is more political will on the part of the governments to stop this illicit trade,” Irena Bokova said in the television show.


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