A new law designed to reduce the flow of illicit antiquities through London came into force at the beginning of the year. The Dealing in Cultural Objects Offences Act outlaws the handling of an item knowing that it was illegally removed from a site anywhere in the world after 2003. When proposed, the UK art trade was initially concerned about its impact, but a detailed analysis by The Art Newspaper suggests that the burden of evidence is so high that prosecutions will be very difficult.
In order to be convicted, it is necessary to prove that a person “knew” or “believed” that an object was tainted—mere suspicion is not enough. The prosecution will also have to show that the item had been removed from a site illegally after the UK law came into force on 30 December 2003. This onerous burden of proof has led the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) to estimate that there will probably be not more than one prosecution every two to three years.
The new law was a key recommendation in the May 2000 report of the DCMS advisory committee on Illicit Trade in Cultural Objects. The committee proposed it should be made a new criminal offence “dishonestly to import, deal in, or be in possession of any cultural object, knowing or believing that the object was stolen, illegally excavated, or removed from any monument or wreck contrary to local law.” DCMS accepted this recommendation. As it explains in a briefing paper on the new law, “London, by virtue of its long-established marketplace, has become known as a centre of the global supply network in stolen and unlawfully removed cultural property.”
The bill began as a Private Member’s initiative in the House of Commons, proposed by Liberal Democrat MP Richard Allan. But partly as a result of the looting of antiquities in Iraq, the issue was seen as increasingly important and the bill received government support. Although events in Iraq speeded up progress, it should be stressed that the new law is not retrospective, so it does not affect objects which were looted in Baghdad last April. It also does not apply to losses from museums, although it does cover archaeological sites. A special UK Order in Council on Iraq was introduced in June, to cover sanctions, and among other measures it bans the handling of illegally-removed Iraqi cultural property.
Another key recommendation of the advisory panel on Illicit Trade in Cultural Objects was the establishment of a database of stolen and illegally removed cultural objects. Progress on establishing the database has been very slow, partly because of funding issues and the question of whether the information should be accessible to the public, rather than just the police. However, a pilot database, with partial coverage, should be available from April. The full database is expected to be online by early 2005.
Although DCMS recommends that those dealing with cultural property should check items they handle against the database, this is not a requirement. According to DCMS official David Gaimster, the new law is about “improving good practice in the marketplace, making everyone more aware of the problems, improving transparency, and penalising those people who don’t undertake due diligence.” He admits that he would be “very surprised” if dealers who are members of trade associations or the major auction houses are ever prosecuted.
Some dealers remain concerned. One London specialist in Asian antiquities told us that he fears the new law will “exclude Britain from the art market—the trade will simply go elsewhere”. He believes it is “a confusing law, which was passed very quickly as an hysterical reaction to what happened in Baghdad”. However, the Dealing in Cultural Objects Offences Act is now fully backed by the British Art Market Federation and the major trade bodies.
o DCMS is holding an open seminar on the new law at the British Museum on 15 January. For information:
% 44 (0) 20 7211 6181.
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘A new law to fight the illicit trade'