Stolen heritage: harm to population identity

Cultural heritage has become an easy and very effective target. The conflicts in Syria and Iraq, for example, were the target for harming the cultural identity of the population. Palmira is a place that is now symbolic of this phenomenon. In Italy, Calabria is the area that suffers the most from despoiling.

The conference “Stolen Heritage”, promoted by the Department of Humanities of Ca’ Foscari University of Venice and by the Center for Cultural Heritage Technology of the Italian Institute of Technology, within the framework of the H2020 NETCHER project provided the opportunity to take stock with a multidisciplinary approach of the destruction, looting and illicit trafficking of cultural property.

Four in-depth themes, starting from an analysis of the legislative framework on the subject, following with the cases of illicit trafficking in Italy, in the Near East and concluding with a view of the multidisciplinary prospects in fighting looting and illicit trafficking of cultural property.

National and international legislative framework

The analysis of the regulatory framework involved dialogue between Edouard Planche, Head of Culture Unit at UNESCO, Marina Schneider, Senior Legal Officer & Treaty Depositary of UNIDROIT and Lauso Zagato, professor of International and European Cultural Heritage Law at Ca' Foscari.

Cultural heritage has a strong impact on the population to which it is linked, therefore its protection is crucial, both in case of armed conflict and in peacetime, and must respond to paradigms that evolve with the evolution of human nature. If we take for example the conflicts in Syria and Iraq, we immediately realize that we are not dealing with “traditional” armed conflicts, but we are looking at a scenario in which cultural heritage to all effects a target to harm the cultural identity of the population.

With increasing globalization, culture has in fact become one of the pillars of the identity of a population, but at the same time it has also led to the emergence of new problems; in fact the population seems to perceive a disconnection between the Cultural Heritage and the area of DRM ( Disaster Risk Management), fuelled by a certain degree of cultural inclination towards fatalism, the false perception of the nature and costs of prevention strategies and by the lack of awareness of the potentially positive role of Cultural Heritage.

UNESCO's responses to these problems are the Conventions: these cover different areas of protection of cultural heritage, such as armed conflicts (Hague 1954), underwater cultural heritage (2001), tangible (1970) and intangible cultural heritage (2003, 2005), however these are imperfect instruments, insofar as they need to be ratified, implemented and to exert the right pressure on the states in order to function.

Another important response to these problems comes from UNIDROIT, the International Institute for the Unification of Private Law, which with the Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects (1995) pursues international legislative harmonization that manages to regulate the cultural market both ethically and financially.

The European Union and the Council of Europe have also contributed to combating the illicit trafficking of cultural property within the continent, seeking to align themselves with UNIDROIT (Directive 2014/60) and identifying three types of export licence for cultural heritage, unifying even controls at borders outside of the EU (Regulation 11/2009).

Looting and trafficking of cultural property on Italian territory

This second session of meetings addressed the issue of illegal traffic on Italian soil, analysing the work of the Venice Cultural Heritage Protection Command Unit with Commander Christian Costantini and the cases of Italian cultural heritage abroad and recovered archaeological property, led by Daniela Rizzo, Maurizio Pellegrini and Simonetta Bonomi.

The Carabinieri Cultural Heritage Protection Command Unit is a very important component in the fight against illicit trafficking of cultural property in our country; in fact, it deals with preventing theft, blocking illegal exports and falsifications, preventing illegal excavations and collaborating with museums and various commercial activities in the sector, including e-commerce. The unit includes a section dedicated to data processing and updating a database that contains all the works being searched for on Italian soil and, in part, also abroad.

Given its importance, it has a detachment in the UNESCO headquarters in order to coordinate and communicate the various developments in the field as directly as possible. However, this is not enough to block illicit trafficking and it is often precisely the museums that willingly take advantage of this: there are numerous examples of foreign museums (such as in Basel or the Getty Museum) that have enriched their collections thanks to the illicit trafficking of cultural property from Italy.

This leads to a second question, that of restitution: some requests from Italy still remain unheeded; for others, it has been necessary to resort to agreements or even take legal action.

An area particularly affected by illegal digs and removal is Calabria, whose archaeological heritage has repeatedly been the victim of these activities, to the extent that, from 1978 to 2018, there were around 890 seizures by the Carabinieri Cultural Heritage Protection Unit, for a total of around 20,000 articles of cultural heritage recovered.

Looting, destruction and trafficking of cultural property in the Near East

The Cultural Heritage in the Near East has unfortunately been the victim of “non-traditional” armed conflicts, which see it as a perfect target to harm the population’s cultural identity. This session of meetings examined the case of war and pillage of property from Palmira with Michela De Bernardin, researcher and co-director of The Journal of Cultural Crime, organised crime inherent in the trafficking of cultural property in Turkey with Samuel Andrew Hardy and new satellite technologies for monitoring these sites with Deodato Tapete and Francesca Cigna, researchers from ASI (Italian Space Agency).

Palmira is today sadly known for being the stage of clashes and destruction since the start of the Arab Spring. The site is located in the heart of the Syrian desert near an oasis of palm trees, which in ancient times made it a fundamental trade hub and today one of the most important archaeological sites in the world.

Despite Syria's ratification of conventions such as the Hague Convention in 1954 and its first protocol, the Syrian Antiquities Law of 1963 or UNIDROIT Convention of 1995, the continuous occupation of the site by DAESH has in fact made it difficult ( if not impossible) to control the looting and illicit trade of this cultural heritage, whose sales have risen since the beginning of the conflict.

Complicit in this is certainly a criminal network organized in Turkey, which operates as a veritable mafia and spreads even to online organizations, targeting precisely archaeological heritage. Concrete help to protect and safeguard cultural heritage comes from satellites: by observing the earth from above with a combination of radar and optical satellites, illegal digs and looting operations can be catalogued and documented to provide future bases for tracking and recovering this property.

Fighting the looting and trafficking of cultural property

This last session of meetings focused on the need for coordination and cooperation among sector stakeholders and beyond, promoting the circulation of information both internally and externally. Speeches were given by Marianne Moedlinger, researcher from the European Association of Archaeologists, Serena Epifani, Director of The Journal of Cultural Heritage Crime and Arianna Traviglia, CCHT - IIT - NETCHER coordinator.

What emerges from the three speeches that concluded the conference is the need for greater communication, both in inner circles and externally and with other sectors. We need a new Code of Ethics for sector operators, aimed at greater clarity in the circulation of information and, at the same, we need to compensate for the lack of information in the public sphere, given that newspapers fail to pay much attention to certain subjects.

These demands led to the NETCHER project, which gathers cultural heritage professionals, academics and researchers, law enforcement and representatives from the art market, the major international organisations in the field and the European Commission. The aim is to create a network of information and cooperation among stakeholders, as well as a programme of good practice.

In conclusion, it is impossible to find a single solution in the fight against illicit trafficking in cultural property. To counteract this practice, we need to harmonize the sector within it and encourage cooperation between market, research and the judicial field, so as to make the protection and safeguarding of cultural heritage effective and efficient and to prepare the basis for future action at European and international level.