Tuesday, 28 December 2021

Brexit Likely to Reinforce the Position of the UK as Major Hub for the Trade in Looted Antiquities

    Archaeologist Neil Brodie says the EU
           takes the issue of looted artefacts
      more seriously than the U.K.
       (Photo courtesy Brodie)

"The United Kingdom might become a major centre for the trade in plundered antiquities" warns Stephen Beard ('Will Brexit turn the U.K. into a hub for the trade in looted antiquities?' Marketplace Dec 28, 2021). What? The headline writer seems totally unaware that the UK (and the London market in particular) already is a major centre for the trade in plundered antiquities!
Among the EU laws that the U.K. has repealed in a bid to differentiate itself from the bloc following Brexit is a measure aimed at suppressing the trade in ancient objects stolen from war-torn countries, like Syria and Iraq. Critics of the move claim that by scrapping this measure, the U.K. is in danger of further encouraging a trade that is already flourishing in Britain. The [...] Gilgamesh Dream Tablet, believed to be the world’s oldest surviving work of literature, was pillaged from an Iraqi museum during the first Gulf War. It may have been seized and returned by the United States, but as Assistant Attorney General Kenneth Polite pointed out during the repatriation ceremony, the stolen tablet first surfaced in London. “The tablet turned up in the U.K. in 2001,” Polite said. “It was then smuggled to the U.S. and sold for $50,000.” The fact that this priceless object, which was eventually sold for $1.6 million to an American museum, was trafficked in London does not cause much surprise in the U.K. “For various reasons, London has become an important center in this illicit trade,” observed archaeologist Mark Altaweel of University College London. He said the trade in looted artifacts — especially in lower-profile items like coins, mosaics and jewelry — has boomed in the British capital in recent years [...], adding that — in his view — the laws banning the importation of stolen artifacts are not enforced rigorously enough in Britain.

Neil Brodie is also quoted, stating that the EU will enact further measures aimed at discouraging this illicit trade. This seems likely to take place at the behest of member states such as Italy and Greece, which historically have been subject to quite heavy looting and the theft of their cultural objects. He points out that the British "seem to have a bit of a blind spot when it comes to the trade in looted artefacts", the country has a history of benefiting from it culturally and financially. This is why, he says, there is no urgency or impetus to act against it in the way the Europeans will.

The post-Brexit decision to repeal EU antiquities legislation makes matters worse, said Fionnuala Rogers, chair of Blue Shield United Kingdom, a group dedicated to protecting cultural property. “Now that the U.K. has left the EU and the EU has brought in much stronger legislation, the U.K. is going to be vulnerable because our legislation is much weaker comparatively,” Rogers said. Unlike the EU, the U.K. doesn’t now require an import license to bring antiquities into the country, and anyone caught importing stolen artifacts can only be convicted of an offense if it can be proven that they knew the item was illegal, which is quite a high bar for prosecutors to clear. The disparity between EU and UK law is going to cause trouble, Rogers said. “The problem with having Europe with a much stricter piece of legislation and the U.K. with essentially nothing comparable, it automatically makes the U.K. a gateway,” she said. Her main anxiety centers on one of the most contentious features of the Brexit withdrawal agreement: the unique status of Northern Ireland. The British province retains a wide-open border with the Irish Republic, and therefore with the European Union. Rogers fears that criminal gangs may ship looted objects quite easily into the U.K. mainland and then use Northern Ireland as a backdoor into the EU. Over time, that backdoor is likely to become an even more attractive option for the smugglers as the EU tightens its controls on every other stretch of its external border.

The article quotes what it represents as a recent British government statement: “We remain committed to combatting illicit trade in cultural objects and believe that existing U.K. law is sufficient to deal with this issue”. This is unsourced and is precisely the same wording as one issues (and then reissued) after the publication of the Palmer Report  two long decades ago, decades in which absolutely nothing was done to actually effectively combat the trade through London markets of illicitly-excavated and smuggled items. What "existing UK law" actually prevents huge numbers of apparently freshly-surfaced items from the MENA region being openly flogged off on- and off-line with dismissively vague "old XX collection, formed before the 1970s (non-nod-wink-wink)" provenance-fluff? How many cases per year has HM Customs deal with in the five-year period 2017-2021? And the Met's antiques task force? If the number is a satisfactory one, why is it not proudly published annually? 


1 comment:

Brian Mattick said...

How utterly depressing.

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