Latvia to enter UNESCO '70 and UNIDROIT '95 Conventions (4)

01 Sep, 2017 Blog

Council of Europe Convention on Offences relating to Cultural property - what we aimed for and what we got.


2017 has bought us new international document – Council’s of Europe Convention on Offenses relating to Cultural Property. As always, new document brings us new hope of a regulation that will help to prevent crimes against cultural property. However, the final version of the convention is much milder than the one that circulated among the working group of this document (leaving out such actions as - the storage, conservation, restoration, transportation and transfer of movable cultural property, knowing that such property derived from or was obtained, directly or indirectly, from criminal offences, if aimed at their illegal importation, exportation, or placement on the market and committed internationally; or such offense as travelling abroad for the purpose of terrorism in order to commit an offence relating to cultural property).

This leaves the impression, that the convention trays to go along the time, but still does not see the crimes against cultural property anywhere near most important issues of European Council. It also does not see the close connection between crimes against cultural property and organized crime, that media likes to rumor about.  

In order to rise awareness, it is often said that illicit trade of cultural property is third most profitable form of organized crime after drugs and arms trafficking. This horrifying announcement, of course, fears, but has no real cover, because no statistics of a precise scope of crimes related to art is made each year. Furthermore, we have to keep in mind, that, for example, one major heist in museum or theft of a "blue chip" artwork can make this approximate statistic of art crime go rocket high, make art crime the first page news, once again mentioning unsolved case of Isabella Gardener gallery theft and lost (and recently found near Naples) masterpieces of Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. Trafficking of cultural property is a transnational phenomenon and its connection with organized crime networks cannot be underestimated, even without trustful source of its yearly amount, but it seems, that recent events in Syria and Iraq have not been enough to prove it to Europe.

Returning to convention, the first article of it sets that it aims to strengthen crime prevention and the criminal justice response to all criminal offenses relating to cultural property. Root of it is the diversity of recognition level and classification of crimes against cultural property even in Europe, but the honorable aim to cover “all crimes against cultural property” was lost during drafting of the document. The article that was supposes to cover “other crimes against cultural property” including for example storage, transportation of illicitly obtained cultural objects was left outside of the final version. That leaves "all criminal offenses" relating to cultural property limited to ones mentioned and made mandatory in the convention, but justice response largely dependent from domestic legislation.

If the previous conventions (UNESCO 1970 convention and UNIDROIT 1995 Conventions) suggested that illicit trade of antiquities, artifacts and art takes place in antiquities shops, minor auction houses and flee markets, than this new document gives us more up to date protection, knowing that most of transactions take place online and among individual persons. Therefore, the new convention brings us such regulations as: theft and other forms of unlawful appropriation, illegal exportation, acquisition, placing in the market, falsification of documents and liability of legal persons. Convention once more reminds us that the transnational characteristics of crimes against cultural property makes states responsible not only for safeguard of their own cultural property, but also honor values of other member states - making illegal importation an offense, however states can declare a criminal or non- criminal sanction to this infraction, so protection of other countries property is mild and depends on each member states honesty. 

Aftertaste of this document leaves an impression that it will just solve some loopholes of previous documents, but the synchronization of criminal offenses related to cultural property between source and market countries even in Europe will not be achieved. The recognition of “all crimes related to cultural property” will depend on domestic approach and scaling of these offenses among other crimes, where cultural property tends to lose.


Kate Zilgalve

Consulting Expert for

State Inspection of Heritage Protection of the Republic of Latvia


Specially for