Looting and Illicit Antiquities

The Blue Shield works with partners like ICOM to combat the traffic of illicit antiquities. There are several key international treaties, UN Security Council Resolutions, and national frameworks which underpin our work in this area. Customary international humanitarian law also forbids pillage (looting by military forces) during armed conflict. (See the links below for more information on these areas). In addition to the laws which underpin our work, we also work to share good practice, and useful resources in our Document Library.

Looting can often be a side effect of conflict or environmental disaster. Economic hardship, combined with the high price tags and demand for cultural property in the art market, can cause ordinary people to resort to looting.

“A Syrian economist suggested that due to the fall of the Syrian pound a Syrian family would need to earn 6.5 more than the average salary to meet the basic requirements in March 2016. Before the war, a falafel sandwich in Aleppo would cost around 15 SYP (31 US cents) … Now a sandwich costs 175-200 SYP.”

However, looting can also be carried out by sophisticated networks of criminal organisations, taking advantage of the absence of law enforcement and protection of cultural property. These networks also take advantage of weaknesses in border controls and differing legal systems, sometimes with the objective of creating a paper trail for an artefact. This is often referred to as trafficking cultural property from a “source country” via a “transit country” and ending up for sale in a “market country”. By acquiring illicit cultural property, private collectors and art dealers may unknowingly be contributing to organised crime.

It can be difficult for a collector to establish when an artefact left its country of origin, especially when accompanied by a provenance that appears legitimate. It can be even more difficult for a collector to know the country of origin of an object, particularly since it is not unusual for a dealer to provide a reference only to the ancient civilisation to which the item belongs, despite the fact that more than one modern state was included in that civilisation in antiquity.

Private citizens and corporations, including collectors and dealers, should always conduct due diligence checks when considering purchasing or shipping cultural objects. (Read more about due diligence checks, or read more about shipping requirements).  They should also comply with national law relating to the import, export, sale and acquisition of cultural property although these laws may differ between countries. However, there are some provisions that apply internationally across all of those countries that have ratified the various international conventions and treaties relating to the protection of cultural property. Some of these international conventions and treaties require signatory countries to enact national legislation (both civil and in some cases criminal) to prohibit the import, export or trade in cultural property that has been illegally exported, which will apply to private collectors and dealers. Examples include:

Looted Archaeological Site


© Photo by Veinticuatro de Jahén, CC BY-SA 4.0, from Wikimedia Commons

The 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflicts and its two Protocols (1954/1999)

States that have ratified the First Protocol (1954) are required to return cultural property found within their territory that was illegally exported during conflict from an occupied territory after 1956 (the year the First Protocol entered into force). Article 21 of the Second Protocol requires those who have ratified this additional Protocol to adopt legislation and disciplinary measures to prevent the illicit export or transfer or ownership of such cultural property.

Read more about the the Convention and its Protocols.

The 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property (the 1970 UNESCO Convention)

Parties to the 1970 UNESCO Convention are required to impose penalties or administrative sanctions on any person who imports certain cultural property that was stolen after 1970, provided that such property is documented as belonging to a relevant museum or institution. However, UNESCO’s Operational Guidelines (paragraph 12) for the Convention suggest that if a State issues a declaration that all unexcavated material is State Property, then the Convention may also apply to cultural property that was illicitly excavated, even if it has not been formally inventoried.

Read more about the 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. Alternatively, visit UNESCOs Illicit Trafficking of Cultural Property website.

1995 UNIDROIT Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects

Parties to the 1995 UNIDROIT Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects (1995 UNIDROIT Convention) must agree to return stolen or illegally exported cultural property, including cultural property excavated from archaeological sites, even if such cultural property is in the possession of a good faith possessor. The Convention lays down a number of stricter measures than the 1970 UNESCO Convention, but has not been as widely ratified.

Read more about the 1995 UNIDROIT Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects on The International Institute for the Unification of Private Law (UNIDROIT) website (or see the list of signatories).

UN Security Council Resolution 1483 (2003) concerning Iraq and Resolution 2199 (2015) concerning Syria

Member States are required to prohibit the import, export or trade of cultural property from Iraq or Syria if it is known or there is reason to suspect the artefacts in question were illegally exported during the recent conflicts (these apply since 6 August 1990 in relation to Iraq, and since 15 March 2011 for Syria).  More information on these resolutions is available in the International Law section.

In many countries the obligations on signatory countries to the conventions and treaties listed above have resulted in criminal legislation. A purchaser should therefore exercise caution and carry out all reasonable due diligence to avoid committing a criminal offence.

Codes of Ethics

There are two key Codes of Ethics to be followed relating to dealing in and purchasing antiquities.

UNESCO International Code of Ethics for Dealers in Cultural Property (UNESCO)
ICOM Code of Ethics for Museums (ICOM)

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