THEFT RESPONSE PLAN    

Modern day looting is greater today than any time in the past, and results in irretrievable destruction. The illegal activities involve either looting of cultural property from illicit excavations or theft of antiquities from museums. Such practices lead to the loss of archaeological record of large historic periods together with our possibility to understand our past.

The illicit and stolen antiquities trade is considered today as one of the largest illegal businesses in the world. In 1994 alone, the estimate by Scotland Yard in such stolen cultural property was 3 billion British pounds worldwide*.

The problem cannot be tackled on just a national level.
Europe has a Regulation No. 3911/92 on the export of cultural goods and Directive 93/7/EEC on the return of cultural objects that were removed unlawfully from member states. There is also the UNIDROIT Convention on the return of stolen cultural objects, the 1954 Hague Covention and second protocol in 1999, and the 1970 UNESCO Convention as a means to prohibit and prevent such actions as well as Code of Ethics by ICOM dealing with illicit or stolen cultural property. But today there are still many market countries that have not yet ratified these Conventions or did so much later on, and museums continue to buy or acquire through donations unprovenanced objects. Also, the European Directives were written to protect cultural property unlawfully removed member states as opposed to neighbouring countries or from other parts of the world. An EC report in 2001 found Directive 93/7/EEC to be inadequate, particularly the one year limitation period for initiating recovering proceedings and recommended that it should be extended to at least three years as provided for in the UNIDROIT Convention on the return of stolen cultural objects.

Once a museum or looted object has been removed unlawfully from the country of origin, police have great difficulties

 

 

in tracking such objects that may be hidden ‘underground’ for many years before resurfacing on the market. If such objects are seized at the border, then police are faced with the daunting task to prove that these objects are authentic and/or have been looted from a specific country or stolen from a museum collection. International databases and publications exist for stolen cultural property, but this requires that a museum has documented their entire museum collection prior to theft, and that it reacts immediately to notify and advertise the theft of such objects to the International community. Even so, it is very difficult for stolen and more so for looted cultural property to be returned to the country of origin, since it must be proven that they were unlawfully removed.

Thus, preventive actions against the theft of museum objects are the most effective means to help stop such actions or to ensure that the stolen objects can be returned as soon as possible.
Strategic plans do exist for museums to protect them against various kinds of risks for the protection of collections based on clearly defined priorities such as in the case of fire, accidents, illegal activities, natural disasters, armed conflicts etc. These plans, such as the ICOM Handbook on Emergency Procedures, as well as others developed by or with the support of UNESCO were examined and workshops held during our project to try and draft strategic plans in case of thefts for museums situated in the Arab World, Greece and Cyprus. The goal is to publish a poster-like theft response plan in Arabic and Greek for museums, cultural institutions and private collections.

With regard to the recent events in Egypt and Tunisia, special attention was given to drafting an operational response plan that is applicable in the event of civil unrest.

A coordinated International, European and Arabic effort in stimulating, promoting, and disseminating actions related to illicit and stolen cultural property will have the strongest impact in the protection of national treasures whether found in museums or have yet to be excavated from archaeological sites.

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