Sunday, 26 July 2009

Cultural property 101 for collectors

Over the past few days there has been a tedious discussion going on over on a collectors’; forum where a bunch of the usual pseudo-intellectuals debate the meaning of the word “heritage” (meaning the archaeological one, but they omit the adjective) and the phrase “cultural property”. It is really is rather pathetic to see, their understanding of the concept turns out to be extremely superficial. Both concepts have of course a fairly substantial academic literature which discusses their meaning, use and pitfalls, there are whole university course units (and some courses) devoted to the first. Yet all this is way over the heads of the defenders of no-questions-asked collecting of antiquities. These would-be kitchen table intellectuals cannot even be bothered to find more than a modicum of the material available on the internet, let alone reach for a book or two. It seems to me that they are kidding themselves if they consider they are adding anything to human knowledge by a discussion which does not begin with making a survey of what actually is already written on the topic.

They should surely be aware of the fact that the concept of "cultural property" (biens culturels) in global discussions on the material embodiments of human culture developed mainly as a result of the destruction of material deemed of irreplacable cultural value in the Second World War. So when Nicholas Roerich was putting together his “Pact” in the 1930s (I would hope collectors would not disagree with the principles it embodies) the term was not used in it. The term however gained currency with the 1954 Hague ‘Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict’. The no-questions-asked collectors in question seem to have problems deciding what the term “cultural property” means and to what (and whom) it applies, let us take a look at the definition given in the Convention:

Article 1. Definition of cultural property For the purposes of the present Convention, the term "cultural property" shall cover, irrespective of origin or ownership:
(a) movable or immovable property of great importance to the cultural heritage of every people, such as monuments of architecture, art or history, whether religious or secular; archaeological sites; groups of buildings which, as a whole, are of historical or artistic interest; works of art; manuscripts, books and other objects of artistic, historical or archaeological interest; as well as scientific collections and important collections of books or archives or of reproductions of the property defined above;
(b) buildings whose main and effective purpose is to preserve or exhibit the movable cultural property defined in sub-paragraph (a) such as museums, large libraries and depositories of archives, and refuges intended to shelter, in the event of armed conflict, the movable cultural property defined in subparagraph (a);
(c) centres containing a large amount of cultural property as defined in subparagraphs (a) and (b), to be known as "centres containing monuments".
This is what the convention (signed by several developed and militarily aggressive nations rather belatedly let us note) defines as worthy of protection. Now I would like to see the collectors’ arguments indicating that this sort of material should not be protected from harm in the event of military conflict. When in 2003 the invader of a certain oil-rich sovereign country failed to do that, most of the world considered a great wrong had been committed (that nation had not ratified the Hague 1954 Convention at the time – and of course any dealers and collectors who got the looted stuff at a suitable price were no doubt happy).

Of course the no-questions-asked collectors arguing against the notion of cultural property are not concerned about ‘Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict’. What concerns them is another international document which embodies the term. This is of course (let us note once again its full title and function) 1970 UNESCO ‘Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Cultural Property’. As we know Article 1 of this convention “the term `cultural property' means property which, on religious or secular grounds, is specifically designated by each State as being of importance for archaeology, prehistory, history, literature, art or science and which belongs to the following categories: […]”. Article 2 follows on from this: “The States Parties to this Convention recognize that the illicit import, export and transfer of ownership of cultural property is one of the main causes of the impoverishment of the cultural heritage of the countries of origin of such property and that international co-operation constitutes one of the most efficient means of protecting each country's cultural property against all the dangers resulting there from”. I think that would be rather difficult to argue with. The no-questions-asked collectors of and especially dealers in certain types of this material are however attempting this. Fortunately though they have not really bothered to find out even in a very perfunctory manner what it is they are up against so they are merely tilting at windmills.


Unknown said...

Just a small quibble, Paul: in April 2003, the 1954 Hague Convention was observed by the U.S. as a matter of customary international law, even though it had not been ratified. The problem is that Hague does not obligate warring parties to secure museums from looting by civilians, only from looting by soldiers.

Paul Barford said...

"Observation" is not the same thing though is it?

But Article 5 (among others)
certainly seems to me to cover looting of the national museum and other collections, no matter whoever is doing it.

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