Global fund to protect cultural heritage launches with $75m and board led by US billionaire Thomas Kaplan

On Friday, France will propose a new resolution to UN Security Council to safeguard sites in conflict zones around the world


Update: On Friday 24 March, the UN Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution condemning the destruction of cultural heritage during armed conflicts, notably by terrorist groups, and holding the perpetrators accountable for their acts. Drafted by France and Italy, resolution 2347 also makes operational recommendations to counter art trafficking. It is the first ever resolution adopted by the Security Council to focus on protection of cultural heritage worldwide.

A new global fund to protect cultural heritage in war zones, spearheaded by France and the United Arab Emirates, has so far raised $75m of a planned $100m. The fund was officially launched today, 20 March, at the Louvre in Paris by the French President François Hollande and the vice premier minister of the Emirates, Sheikh Saif Bin Zayed Al Nahyan.

Originally proposed at an international conference held under the auspices of the G7 in Abu Dhabi last December, the International Alliance for the Protection of Heritage in Conflict Areas (Aliph) was registered on 3 March in Geneva. The fund, named after the first letter of the Arabic alphabet, will be led by a 14-member board, chaired by the American billionaire Thomas Kaplan.

Kaplan, 54, who made his fortune in oil, silver and gold, also created the Leiden Collection of Dutch painting currently on view at the Louvre. Known in moderate Republican circles in the US, Kaplan is also well connected to the ruling families in the Arab Gulf. He has donated $1m to the fund.  

The other board members include Mariët Westermann, the executive vice-president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation (which is also donating to the fund, although the amount will be decided in June); Richard Kurin, the under secretary for museums and research at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC; Jean-Luc Martinez, the Louvre’s director; Markus Higert, the director of the Near and Middle Eastern art department at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin; Mohamed al-Mubarak, chairman of the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Cultural Authority; and Jack Lang, a former French culture minister who is now the head of the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris.

Inspired by the Global Fund to fight Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria, French officials insist on the importance of support from private philanthropy in the US, such as Kaplan, the Mellon Foundation and the World Monuments Fund. Most of the money raised so far has come from France ($30m), the UAE ($15m) and Saudi Arabia ($20m). Some countries, like Switzerland, Germany and China, have proposed helping through administrative support, like creating a headquarters for the fund in Geneva, or storing threatened antiquities in national museums. The UK already has its own $32m fund to protect heritage in conflict zones.

The fund’s launch takes place exactly two years after a press conference was held by the French President at the Louvre protesting against Isis’s destruction at the Mosul Museum and the ancient city of Nimrud, the same day the Bardo Museum was attacked in Tunis. Hollande then commissioned a report on how such crimes could be stopped from the Louvre’s director, who included the idea of an international fund among 50 proposals to counter terrorism and art trafficking.

French officials also stressed that this initiative was complementary to programmes organised by Unesco, which will also have a representative on the board, and other efforts such as the Cultural G7 meeting planned in Florence at the end of the month. On 24 March, France will propose a resolution co-sponsored by Italy to the UN Security Council, stressing the importance of protecting cultural sites in all conflict zones and countering art trafficking. Although it has already adopted such resolutions about Iraq or Syria, this would be the council’s first general proclamation on cultural heritage around the world.

“After all the speeches delivered against such barbarian acts, we have to move,” a diplomatic spokesman for the French government said. “When we see, with the advance of troops in Iraq, the gravity of the damage in places like Mosul, we understand that we have to act on this, and act fast.” The Louvre’s director Jean-Luc Martinez agreed: “It’s time to get past the emotion and to act.”