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The scale of the illegal antiquities trade

UNESCO has revealed that trafficking cultural property illegally is second only to international drug trafficking in terms of the amounts of money involved. Unfortunately, Britain is still one of the major international centres for this trade.

From:
Navahind Times (India) [1]

Wednesday, September 7, 2005
Trafficking in art objects next only to narcotics trade: UNESCO

UNI New Delhi Sept 6: Terming trafficking in cultural property a “seamless trade” and pegging its value at US $6 billion annually, a high-profile United Nations Educational, Social and Cultural Organisation meet here today revealed that it was next only to narcotics trade worth $7 billion.“Trafficking in cultural property has assumed the dimensions of a seamless trade as drug cartels peddle art objects for ploughing the huge monetary gains in their narcotics trade and also for arms dealings,” Dr A Galla, vice-president of World Council of Museums, told the UNESCO’s workshop for the Asia-Pacific region on ‘illicit trafficking of cultural property’.

Dr Galla said the nefarious trade in art objects had transcended the national and regional boundaries to emerge as an international phenomenon, and could be effectively curbed only through collaborative international ventures.

“The 1954 Hague convention on the subject is extremely euro-centric and does not address the concern of asian nations whose priceless cultural heritage continues to be trafficked in western markets,” he pointed out.

Arguing that the unbridled trafficking of art objects would be difficult to be curbed through archaic laws, Dr Galla, who teaches at the Canberra University, said India, being projected as an emerging superpower, should join hands with countries like Brazil and South Africa to counter the hegemonist trade of the western powers.

The four-day brainstorming meet is being attended by representatives from countries like Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, France, Australia, Bangladesh, Nepal, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Maldives and Malaysia.

Legal experts and officials from Interpol, the Central Bureau of Investigation and customs are also attending the seminar, which is expected to chalk out a blueprint to better fight the reprehensible phenomenon of illicit trafficking of cultural objects.

The Culture Minister, Mr S Jaipal Reddy, who was to launch the meet, could not do so because of some pressing engagements.

The culture secretary, Ms Neena Ranjan said barring the UNIDROIT, India had signed most of the UN conventions on prevention of trafficking in cultural objects.

“We have also enacted the Antiquities Act, but experience has shown that it lacks adequate teeth,” she said, adding that the government was planning to amend the law.

Ms Ranjan said India had not laid any stake to the return of its stolen cultural property. However, eminent scholar Ms Kapila Vatsyayan, who also addressed the gathering, said India had sought return of the famous Amravati sculptures from the British museum.

Without identifying auction centres in the West, like Sotheby’s where prized cultural objects are being put under the hammer, Ms Vatsyayan said Asia was the worst sufferer in terms of trafficking of its cultural property.

“There is a need for museums not to buy artefacts unless it is done by clear legal certification,” she reasoned out.

Concurring with the culture secretary, she said it was imperative to raise awareness about cultural heritage as the younger generation in Asia “faces the risk of amnesia of their countries’ cultural antiquities”.

Ms Vatsyayan said it was an absolute necessity to protect the distinctiveness of each culture and lauded the role of the UNESCO in setting standards through various conventions and projects like the silk route and excavation of artefacts in the Aswan dam in Egypt.

Dr Galla, a native of Amravati, said awareness should be raised by preparing digital repositories of cultural artefacts. “I have prepared a database of all Amravati sculptures. Similar projects should be made in other countries for the younger generation.”