Report on UNESCO 1970 Conference in Paris 2017

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by Vincent Geerling

June 22, 2017 – IADAA chairman Vincent Geerling and deputy chairman Antonia Eberwein, supported by Ivan Macquisten, attended the UNESCO 1970 Conference in Paris on May 15-16 to address the delegates from states members from across the world on behalf of CINOA. This was the fourth meeting of the state parties to the Convention since its formation in the early 1970s, the last being in 2015.

Much of the meeting was taken up with bureaucracy and appointments, with very little focus on what had actually been achieved over the years.
It ran very late but time restrictions on speaking were only introduced once the conference chairman had checked on the length of Vincent Geerling’s speech ( 5 min.) – and were only lifted once Vincent had been cut short, despite the conference then going on to run 1.5 hours behind schedule.

Amid all the congratulations to the committee chairman on his appointment and thanks to the secretariat for all its hard work, there was precious little evidence of any achievement in combatting illicit trafficking. One or two examples of seizures and returns were made – none of it Syria-related, and none of it relating to material of any importance or value. This indicates that not much is appearing on the market. There were absolutely no references to arrests or prosecutions relating to Syria and Iraq. Nonetheless, it was accepted without question that Syria and Iraq-related looting was a growing problem.

There were several references to consultations with the art market, but apart from the speech Vincent Geerling gave on March 30, 2016 – which was roundly dismissed at the time – only Christie’s and eBay seem to have been involved. This included an informal working group consultation held from March 10-13, 2017 in Crete.

There appears to be no understanding that Christie’s does not represent the trade.

However, Antonia returned later in the week to address the conference once more, challenging the states members to provide evidence for all the claims being made regarding illicit trade and trafficking. The response was illuminating:

  • The UN security monitoring team told Antonia that in no report have they officially mentioned that they have proof of a link between illicit traffic and terrorism nor have they ever announced any figures. If this is the case, then they need to make their position far clearer because they certainly give the impression that it is a huge problem and are co-operating with the EU on their project and have had nothing to say against the new Convention. It should be noted, however, that on page 3 of UNESCO’s Round Table agenda at the March 30 conference on Cultural Property, they did give figures for trafficking, stating that the flow of ISIS-related trafficking had increased by 500% over the past three years. Although the claim was attributed to Le Monde, on checking IADAA discovered that Le Monde was quoting Edouard Planche, of the UNESCO secretariat, who was actually running the session using the quote at the conference.
  • They also said that all the claims were generated by the media. Again, if so, then that is even more of a reason for them to give a correct view and make it clear.

A positive outcome was the establishment of new contacts among the states members who seem prepared to involve IADAA in future discussions.

Meanwhile, here is a summary of key findings at the May 15-16, 2017 conference:

  • Claims of an unprecedented scale of activity (unsubstantiated in any way) led to a call for a major adjustment of working methods. What this meant was not explained.
  • Member states were supposed to present a report before June 15, 2015 on what they had done to implement the UNESCO resolution. No evidence was presented as to whether this had been achieved, but it didn’t look like it.
  • Greece said its work relies on certificates of origin and outreach to the art market among other bodies, although it gave no examples of such outreach or who it involved from the art market.
  • Much was made by a number of speakers throughout the day about how exchange of information was essential in tackling illicit antiquities, and that this was a primary obligation among member states, who should be sharing information on arrests and seizures with Interpol, Europol, ICOM, UNESCO and other NGOs. The complete absence of evidence relating to trafficking from Iraq and Syria suggests that either they are not complying with this fundamental obligation or that they are but nothing is happening.
  • Iraq said it had started a constructive dialogue with collectors and auction houses, but gave no details identifying who these people/organisations were.
  • There was a great deal of stress on the art market’s ethical responsibility to protect heritage, but no attempt made to engage the art market – even when they were actually at the conference (see above).
  • UNESCO has set up a 30-member team of experts to offer services to countries in armed conflict with heritage under serious threat. All regarding the restoration of monuments.
  • Sweden called for co-operation with art market shippers. UNESCO talked of a pilot project.
  • Syria noted Daesh ravaging the north of the country three days ago, leading to many cultural items being sold very quickly in neighbouring countries. They did not provide any evidence of this, nor how they knew this.
  • Zambia said there were reports of increased trafficking but gave no evidence of this.
  • Germany said that if member states didn’t state what their local laws are, they couldn’t enforce their new cultural property law.
  • A call for member states to list their local laws on the UNESCO database was met with concern as funding runs out for it in July 2017. The annual budget is currently $300,000.
  • A January 30, 2017 sanctions team report to the UN Security Council (with help from UNESCO) emphasised that states that share the values of UNESCO should provide UNESCO with information about artefacts seized. 30% of trafficked Syrian artefacts are fakes, it said.
  • Markus Hilgert, speaking on ILLICID on behalf of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation/ Federal Commissioner for Culture and Media, explained what the project was doing, but submitted no findings or results… two years on, despite the €1.2m budget, yet left the rostrum to a round of applause.

Proposals for strengthening synergies included:

  • Joint awareness raising campaigns.
  • Military training.
  • Getting all states to ratify both Hague Conventions.
  • The creation of an open online database.
  • Exchange of information.
  • A draft plan for restitution.
  • An online questionnaire for periodic reports.
  • An informal reflection group with a mandate to work on priority topics, such as online sales of illicit material; standardised procedures for search and seizure; and restitution. No mention was made here of consulting art market experts, which would actually help.
  • Strengthening of monitoring of auction houses.
  • Strengthening of info exchange between auction houses and member states.
  • Sanction mechanisms for failure to carry out due diligence.
  • Harmonisation of law provision.

To read IADAA chairman Vincent Geerling’s speech at the UNESCO Conference, please click here. 

This is the IADAA homepage.

For accessing the webpage of The International Federation of Dealer Associations / CINOA please click here. 

And the wording of the 1970 UNESCO Convention can be found here.