Last weekend over ninety specialists in combatting art crime met in the small Umbrian town of Amelia for the annual ARCA (Art Crimes Research Association) conference. It could be said that the conference came at just the right moment. Earlier this month an Italian court in Pesaro decided that the Getty museum’s acquisition of a Greek bronze statue, dubbed by the Italian press the ‘Fano Athlete’, and by the rest of the world the ‘Getty bronze’, was not legal under Italian law. Although in theory, this could pave the way for the statue’s return to Italy from California, in reality, the Getty will likely appeal the decision leading to a new round of litigation. Since the verdict, the English speaking media has been dominated by press releases from the Getty stressing the legality of their purchase, but the audience in Amelia heard very different arguments from Italian legal experts who have been following the case.
Repatriation of cultural property, in various forms, continues to be a central issue in heritage protection and this was reflected in the conference papers, but it is clear that attitudes towards cultural property are changing. Whereas a few years ago arguments would have focused almost exclusively on the legal basis for repatriation, there is increasingly an emphasis on reaching a mediated settlement based on moral and ethical issues (which is why some think the Getty is out of step in continuing to pursue the Fano Athlete case). Several papers highlighted the increasing sensitivity of museum and heritage professionals towards source countries, even in the absence of legal obligations, including examples of museums that have refused to accept new donations without the agreement of the source countries.
The last conference session focused on the looting of antiquities from conflict areas, the so-called ‘blood antiquities’. Aside from the loss of heritage, the role that this trade plays in funding terrorism and organized crime is of great concern, though it is by no means clear how extensive this trade is. In a lively discussion involving law enforcement officers and administrators from several countries, it was evident that there are very few confirmed figures to indicate the scale of the trafficking. Training programs for local heritage professionals and the collaboration of international agencies are essential tools to break the supply chain. Samer Abdel Ghafour, UNESCO consultant and AUR adjunct professor, gave an account of a recent ARCA training program in Beirut and a representative of the EU Counter-Terrorism Unit summarised the results of a recent initiative to combat blood antiquities in Europe.
As someone who has attended this conference for several years, I was struck by the fact that although many of the topics remain the same every year – repatriation, illegal trafficking, ethical responsibilities – the arguments have moved on considerably. The discussions are now more nuanced, sensibilities have changed, technology allows new types of investigation and there is a far higher level of professional collaboration across law enforcement, academics, heritage professionals, and NGOs. The idea that traffickers of art and antiquities are some sort of ‘gentlemen’ thieves, different from common and garden criminals has been well and truly laid to rest. Art and antiquities trafficking is a violent, corrupt and dirty business that destroys lives as well as history.
Valerie Higgins 25 June 2018.