Photo Exhibition “50 Years in the Fight Against the Illicit Trafficking of Cultural Property”


50 Years in the Fight Against the Illicit Trafficking of Cultural Property

This year, 14 November 2020 marks the 50th anniversary of the 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property.

Over the past five decades, poverty, climate change, civil unrest, armed conflict, organized crime and violent extremism, as well as  a considerable increase in the intentional destruction of cultural heritage, have all fuelled the increase in the illicit trafficking of cultural property.

The COVID-19 pandemic represents the latest challenge facing culture today. Across the globe, people have found refuge in culture. Culture has not only enabled us to remain connected to one another. It has also inspired us and given us hope at a time of enormous anxiety and uncertainty.

However, restrictions on the movement of people has meant that the surveillance and protection of cultural sites and museums has often been reduced. This has led to a rise in thefts, illegal excavations at archaeological sites and trafficking of cultural property, including online.

In addition to their aesthetic value, cultural objects are irreplaceable symbols of identity and witnesses to the history of humanity that must be preserved.  These recent events and diverse threats mean that the fight against illicit trafficking of cultural property is more vital than ever.

For the past 50 years UNESCO has played a pivotal role in this fight, as the only international organization with a mandate to protect and safeguard cultural heritage.

On this 50th anniversary of the 1970 Convention, this virtual photo exhibition highlights the importance of the Convention and its successes.

I hope this exhibition reminds us all of our collective responsibility to safeguard and protect cultural property, so that future generations may enjoy these priceless cultural treasures, which bear witness to the history of humanity.

Enjoy your visit!

Ernesto Ottone R.

UNESCO Assistant Director-General for Culture

Cultural Heritage in the Face of Conflict

For decades, the destruction of cultural heritage in times of conflict has become one of the greatest challenges facing the international community. Such destruction not only deprives local communities of valuable cultural property, and jeopardizes its transmission to future generations, but also leads to a rise in the illicit trafficking of cultural property.

Professionals in action

UNESCO, together with its partner organizations, organizes regional and national training and capacity-building workshops to promote and raise awareness of the concepts, measures and mechanisms of its standard-setting instruments, including the 1970 Convention. These training activities are an opportunity to bring together cultural heritage professionals, customs officials, law enforcement agencies, as well as national officials to build capacities and connections to combat the illicit trafficking of cultural property.


Illicit trafficking and restitution of cultural property

UNESCO’s 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property was established in response to the growing concern of many Member States about the loss of their cultural heritage to looting and illicit trafficking. The 1970 Convention is built on three main pillars: prevention; restitution; and international cooperation.

  • Successful restitutions

The Convention stipulates that States Parties must assist each other in recovering stolen cultural property and "take appropriate steps to recover and return any such cultural property imported after the entry into force of this Convention" (Article 7). Below are successful examples of restitution under the Convention:

After being smuggled out of the Kingdom during the civil war and kept in the Cambodian Embassy in France for more than two decades, the heads of a Brahma statue finally arrived back in Cambodia in March 2016.

The Heracles Sarcophagus which depicts 12 works of Hercules, was identified in 2011 by Geneva Customs authorities. Owing to the joint efforts of the Turkish and Swiss authorities upon completion of the legal process, the sarcophagus was returned to Turkey in 2017.  Today, the object is exhibited in Antalya Museum as one of the most significant pieces of the permanent collection. 

The Hippocampus brooch, exhibited in the Uşak museum (Turkey), was stolen and replaced by a forgery  in 2006. Immediately registered in INTERPOL's Stolen Works of Art database, it was detected in Germany in 2013. Thanks to the strong co-operation between the Turkish and German authorities in the framework of the 1970 Convention, the brooch was returned to Turkey.

The bronze chariot with bulls taken during unpermitted excavations in Şanlıurfa (Turkey), was found in an auction at Bonhams in the United Kingdom. The seller agreed to renounce ownership rights and the sculpture was returned to Turkey in early 2020.

The bronze cannons were discovered in September 2010 by ICOM in Madagascar, when ICOM  was asked by the Cultural Heritage Department of the Ministry of Culture of Madagascar to attend the opening of a container intended for export. The expert's report confirmed suspicions that the cannons came from underwater lootings. The wreck in question is believed to be the Sao Ildefonso, a Portuguese ship, which sank in 1527.

The Rettinger case

The Rettinger case is an important example of how the Convention can be used to support return and restitution of cultural property. The case centred on a collection of 536 artefacts of the Manteña, Milagro-Quevedo, Bahía, Chorrera and Valdivia cultures illegally taken out of Ecuador by a German national. In 2015, Josef Rettinger contacted the Ecuadorian embassy in Germany to return this collection, which he inherited from his uncle who lived in Ecuador between 1985 and 2005. The restitution took place in October 2019 with the National Institute of Cultural Heritage of Ecuador, which then drew up an inventory in accordance with Article 5 of the 1970 Convention. To educate the public, the collection and the story of its restitution were exhibited.

UNESCO would like to thank everyone who contributed to the preparation of this exhibition.

Published in 2020 by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, 7, place de Fontenoy, 75352 Paris 07 SP, France.

© UNESCO 2020

Images marked with an asterisk (*) do not fall under the CC-BY-SA licence and may not be used or reproduced without the prior permission of the copyright holders.