International cultural property: how to find your way through the legal maze

Museums can now access information on legislation around the world

BOSTON. The International Foundation for Art Research (IFAR) has launched a website compiling foreign cultural property laws and other information affecting the ethics and legality of transferring cultural property. The resource (viewable at also creates a database of catalogues raisonnés for artists.

The site is intended to help people navigate the large body of law relating to acquisition, ownership and authenticity of art objects, and was aided by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Studies.

Legal questions relating to owning art tend to be very complex. Notably lacking has been a research tool for responding to claims by a foreign government that it owns specific works of art.

A section on “International Cultural Property” and export laws contains legislation from around 100 countries. IFAR summaries are included, along with complete texts, in the original language and English. Historical legislation is also included, which may be useful for those seeking to know the statutes in effect when an art object was acquired. The site provides links to relevant court decisions and international conventions and agreements. A section on “country contacts” identifies government officials to query as to whether a work of art can be legally acquired.

A section assembling an array of art-related court cases and statutes (“Case Law and Statutes”), primarily from the US, includes cases that were settled out of court, together with images of the art. The legal roundup includes World War II or Holocaust-related art loss claims, antiquities cases, disputes over US and non-US cultural property, other art theft and ownership disputes, disputes over contracts, art fraud, attribution, authenticity, forgery, libel and defamation, valuation and appraisal cases, and cases involving copyright and artists’ moral rights.

The site also includes professional guidelines, including acquisition standards and codes of ethics from the American Association of Museums, the International Council of Museums and other groups.

In the catalogues raisonnés database, IFAR lists the details of scholarly compilations of artists’ bodies of work. The database includes both published catalogues raisonnés, and catalogues in preparation, which are “especially difficult to find”, said IFAR executive director Sharon Flescher. The databases stem from IFAR’s work in attribution and authenticity.

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