UNESCO’s Édouard Planche on the looting of antiquities in war zones

 Paris  |  19 February 2015  |  AMA  |  Tweet  |  LinkedIn

During a speaker event at the Club de la chasse et de la nature, organised by AMA on 16 February, Édouard Planche, a specialist in the trafficking of cultural goods at UNESCO, addressed a small audience on the subject of the looting of artworks and artefacts in war zones.

Planche kicked off the evening’s proceedings with a painful reminder of the ongoing conflict in Syria. The Middle-Eastern country is home to six UNESCO world heritage sites: the ancient city of Aleppo, the ancient city of Bosra, the ancient city of Damascus, the Krac des Chevaliers, the ancient city of Palmyra, and the ancient cities of the North; along with no fewer than twelve sites which are currently being considered for official recognition as world heritage sites, including Elba, Mari, Dura Europos, and Apamea. Since the beginning of the Syrian conflict 290 sites of cultural or archaeological importance have been affected, with 24 destroyed, 104 seriously damaged, 85 partially damaged, and 77 believed to be damaged. Amongst the worst affected are Aleppo, Damascus, the Krac des Chevaliers, Palmyra, Dura Europos, Bosra, Elba, Apamea, and Raqqa.

On this sobering note, the speaker moved onto another serious problem: the funding of terrorist activities through the trafficking of ancient artefacts. While some countries are not yet fully involved in the fight against illicit traffic of cultural heritage from Syria and Iraq, most of the bordering countries are doing significant efforts to cooperate in this field. To give an idea of the extent of the problem, the speaker explained that the legal trade of antiquities is a $60 billion-a-year industry, but as far as figures related to the illegal trade in the world and in Syria and Iraq are concerned, it is extremely difficult to provide a precise estimate. Planche added that: “the trafficking of drugs, arms, and antiquities are all means of money laundering […] if you purchase a Syrian antiquity, you are supporting organised crime”. The only silver lining to the situation seems to be that authorities in charge of the country’s antiquities succeeded in safeguarding the majority of the important collections in secure vaults beneath banks in Damascus prior to the conflict.

A lack of official documentation has also left archeological sites vulnerable to attack, with recent years seeing them become a target for criminals. Planche revealed that “terrorist groups in the area employ professional archeologists to show them important sites, before digging them up with bulldozers”. As for the Palmyra sepulchres and the bust that have been stolen from the site, Planche added: “I’m sure that in a few months time these artefacts will be proposed to Christie’s and Sotheby’s for $200,000 – $300,000, if not more […] it’s the same story as with the Angkor temples. Thankfully, their internal standards and due diligence processes will prevent them from doing so.” In response to an audience member who suggested banning the sale of such artefacts, the speaker underlined the hopelessness of the situation; “it’s already been banned”.

“But what action does UNESCO take?” asked another guest. “We act in several different ways. The aim is to be preventative before conflicts occur […] to work in cooperation with our partners […]. Many police forces are cooperating with UNESCO in the fight against illicit traffic of cultural heritage, starting with INTERPOL Works of Art Unit, as well as the Guardia Civil (Spain), OCBC (France), FBI (USA), Carabinieri (Italy), Federal Police (Switzerland). UNESCO wants to be able to warn them about what has been stolen, and to recover photos, if possible, as well as stolen pieces, so that they can be recorded in a data base.” Another course of action is raising awareness in large institutions. Pierre Naquin asked: “Do they keep you informed? Is there a system for relaying information?”, to which Édouard Planche replied: “I’ve never had any museums calling me to say anything, perhaps they inform the police.” However, it should be noted that museums are always under pressure because artworks are a topic of commercial negotiation. Some museums have been obliged to return certain cultural objects under specific circumstances and contexts, but not only for commercial reasons. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Louvre in Paris, which have had to return their artworks, can attest to this.

The discussion moved on to auction houses, which are essential links for trafficking. The speaker took the example of Galerie Golconda, in Saint-Paul de Vence, which recently sold an Iraqi cuneiform block, which was banned from sale. Police intervened immediately, and according to Planche “it is now up to them to do the work”. The work’s certificate consists of 30 lines about the history of the block, the provenance of which is never mentioned but which features, nevertheless, “the police registration number 1081, which doesn’t say anything at all”, Planche adding that “what interests us is knowing whether this comes from an indexed collection, when it was returned to France…”. In a similar vein, when the museum of Bagdad was looted in 2003, “15,000 pieces were stolen, and 9,000 have been recovered. There are still 5,000 floating about. Some have even been found in Peru.”

“Can you freeze the sales of objects that come from Syria?” Édouard Planche’s reply was an encouraging one: “yes”, as the 2199 (2015) resolution has now been adopted by the Security Council in the UN. Most importantly, paragraph 17, states: “All member states should take deliberate measures to stop the trade of Iraqui and Syrian cultural goods and other objects of archaeological, historical or cultural value […] which have been smuggled illegally from Iraq since 6 August 1990 and Syria since 15 March 2011 […].” The problem is that these aforementioned works were “registered in a collection during the 1960s” because it was only in the 1970s that international regulations made it obligatory to state the provenance of a work.

The speaker concluded with a few words on the role of governments, mentioning the existence of UNIDROIT, an international organisation that watches over the standardisation of private international law. UNIDROIT has established an agreement that should be directly applied by the states, stating that: “every stolen cultural good should be returned unconditionally […] and the burden of the proof should be reversed in good faith.” Italy and Greece, for example, have already ratified this agreement; whilst some important countries in the art market such as France, the United States, and the United Kingdom, still refuse to do so…

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