Friday, September 7, 2007

The Art Loss Register: the view of a private collector

There is nothing like a thick stack of minutes. During the last few days I have had cause to reflect on the Art Loss Register and the way that it is being cited as part of a "self-regulation" culture in the antiquities market. I was checking the index of evidence for the UK House of Commons 2000 report on Cultural Property: Return and Illicit Trade (see Gill and Chippindale) and Appendix 2, "Memorandum submitted by Mr Claude Hankes-Drielsma", addressed the issue:
"Counteracting this illicit trade has to start by the countries concerned applying a more pragmatic approach both with regard to losses and economic realities. Furthermore, countries which are concerned with archaeological illegal exports need to ensure that objects excavated and in museums are properly photographed and recorded. This would enable them to identify when these objects are stolen and then ensure that they alert institutions such as the Art Loss Register to the loss. It would enable dealers in antiquities over a certain value to always check with the Art Loss Register or such like organisations to ensure that the objects they are handling are not stolen."
This assumes, of course, that the antiquities surfacing on the market as a result of "illicit trade" had been excavated by archaeologists, placed in a museum or store, and then stolen. These things can happen.

But what about antiquities which surface on the market with a reported but undocumented history? They will not appear in the Register.

Hankes-Drielsma --- or Sir Claude Hankes as he is now --- describes himself in the memorandum as follows:
"I am a former Chairman of the Management Committee of Price Waterhouse and Partners, a collector of antiquities, a Patron and benefactor to the British Museum and on a Committee of the Ashmolean Museum, Patron of the National Portrait Gallery and an Honorary Fellow of Corpus Christi College, Oxford."
Hankes, it should also be noted, was opposed to the UK ratification of UNIDROIT. His memorandum continued,
"Ratification of UNIDROIT by the UK would not only be a direct contravention of free trade but the bureaucracy required to deal with claims would be insurmountable given the above problems. Art trade is a very major international market and if a country could claim art which had been purchased legally was under their domestic law an illegal purchase, and it would then be for the owners of the art to prove this was not the case and these owners would be in an impossible position to fight the resources of a country. Furthermore, the country's laws may be such that they totally contravene the legal rights of ownership of the country under whose jurisdiction the owners are. Any success in this regard for the said countries could generate an avalanche of claims, very often for political reasons rather than cultural."
The UK Government subsequently signed up to the 1970 UNESCO Convention. The Arts Minister, Baroness Blackstone, commented:
"By signing this agreement, we are sending a strong warning to those who do so much damage to the world's cultural heritage that the UK is serious about joining the international effort to stamp out illicit trade in cultural objects. It will also help us claim back objects unlawfully removed from the UK."

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