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UNESCO Urges Provenance Research

Published on , by Vincent Noce

A Unesco conference has drawn attention to the need for the art market to fight trafficking in cultural goods.

“Long-necked” Mbumba (Tsogho, Gabon, 19th century, h. 38.5 cm/15.15 in) restituted... UNESCO Urges Provenance Research

“Long-necked” Mbumba (Tsogho, Gabon, 19th century, h. 38.5 cm/15.15 in) restituted to the musée du quai Branly by the Bernard Dulon gallery. Abbot Walker had given it to the musée du Trocadéro in 1934.
© Courtesy Galerie Bernard Dulon, Photo Hughes Dubois

Long neglected, provenance research is emphatically in fashion. After a task force report and the symposium organized by the Institut national de l'histoire de l'art (INHA), the Sales Council and Drouot, Unesco held a conference on December 5 in partnership with Drouot, giving national officials an opportunity to forge closer ties with the art market.

Colonel Hubert Percie du Sert, head of the Office central de lutte contre le trafic des biens culturels (Central Office for the Fight Against Illegal Trafficking in Cultural Goods, OCBC), recalled its basic mission. “The lack of vigilance necessarily makes criminal and terrorist organizations accomplices,” he said, stressing the trade’s devastating impact on “interstate relations”, a transparent allusion to the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s acquisitions of Egyptian antiquities. He also said that trafficking in cultural goods is “the world’s third-largest illicit trade behind arms and drugs,” a myth unfortunately recently taken up by Unesco. Curiously, while its director for culture formally closed the session, Unesco itself did not take part in the debates.

Participants pleaded for a return to reality. Archaeologist Vincent Michel said art trafficking “is very hard to evaluate.” Even if the amount were “a few hundred million euros, that would still only be a small fraction of the tens of billions” changing hands on the art market. “The enemy must not be mistaken,” he said, preferring to ask professionals to “be aware.”
Many participants stressed the need for international standardization. Colonel Percie du Sert mentioned a European plan put forward by France’s Ministry of Culture. The general inspector of Dutch heritage, Marja van Heese, was not reassuring. She said that art market regulation in her country “was sufficient”—without knowing the details and denying that the Netherlands, with Belgium, is Europe’s trafficking hub, due to its lax legislation.

Gianpetro Romano, head of the Carabinieri in charge of heritage in Italy, said it was impossible to put a number on art trafficking because inventories of looted sites “are fragmented” and it is “very hard to assess the value of” fraudulent goods. In 2022, Italy recorded 22,500 of them, including 1,300 fakes worth an estimated €22M. At the same time, the OCBC seized €10M in criminal assets. From 2014 to 2021, Interpol recorded nearly 10,000 infractions, half of them in Europe. While this is only a partial view because the figures come from just 74 of Interpol’s nearly 200 member states, the data give a more realistic idea of the scale of a trade that pales in comparison with trafficking in drugs, arms, human beings and counterfeit goods. “It’s hard to put a figure on it,” says African heritage specialist Fallo Baba Keita, recalling that on his continent, “many museums don’t keep statistics” of objects that have disappeared from their collections. “Just 3% of the objects stolen in Africa can be found in international databases.” He recalled that radical Islamists looted or burned 4,000 manuscripts in Timbuktu and the United States returned 900 seized objects to Mali in December 2021.

Drouot representative Alexandre Giquello called on recognizing “the contribution of the private sector, which has access to family inventories to fight the scourge”. However, professionals have underscored the complexity of this as traffickers increasingly find ways to avoid detection. Professor Michel pointed to moves to change the identity of sculptures or even touch them up to prevent traceability. Among other transformations, a funerary portrait from Cyrene recorded as looted became a bust of Emperor Domitian and a Greek head reappeared as a Roman Vesta at Brafa. “Illicit trade has given rise to trafficking in false provenances, which can be extremely difficult to detect,” says Mr. Giquello. “The market really does want to do better,” remarked Parisian expert Elodie Jeannest de Gyvès, who mentioned the practical hurdles to provenance investigations, starting with the huge volume of objects to process and the difficulty of database research.

Back to the Past
Mr. Keita introduced one debate by denouncing transfers of objects made by missionaries, administrators and archeologists during the colonial period. Mr. Giquello pointed out that the 1970 Unesco convention is not retroactive and, on those legal grounds, called for “mutual respect” between the market and the source countries. That is all well and good, the Malian specialist recognized, but “communities did not give their consent to these transfers and future generations will bring the issue up again if it is not dealt with now.”

Everyone praised the voluntary restitution of “symbolic objects,” in the words of Mr. Giquello, who as an auctioneer accompanied the repatriation of a Mayan stele to Mexico and a plesiosaurus skeleton to Morocco. Mr. Dulon mentioned the Tsogho figurine given to the Musée du Quai Branly after his gallery, during an exhibition, noticed that it had long been missing from the Musée de l’Homme. “Trafficking and the market must not be lumped together, nor the private sector’s generosity underestimated,” he said.

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