Celebrating despair

It is fifty years since UNESCO adopted the Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property to counter the illicit trade in cultural objects. The Art Newspaper reports a bizarre advertising campaign commissioned by UNESCO from the agency DDB Paris to support its celebration of UNESCO action against illicit trade since then. Titled The Real Price of Art, the campaign features (or featured – it has been taken down) a series of five montages presenting an “illicit antiquity” against a background of what is imagined to be a collector’s home, together with a text describing the sordid provenance of the antiquity in question. Unfortunately, it turns out the antiquities are not illicit. The images appear to have been lifted from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s online database and are of objects that entered the Met’s collection legitimately many decades ago. This really is pathetic. There are people all over the world who have spent years or even decades documenting the illicit trade, often at their own personal expense, and their efforts have been completely ignored. How much money did UNESCO waste paying DDB Paris for this embarrassment? It would have been much better spent supporting people who are doing serious documentation.

And if that isn’t bad enough, the Art Newspaper also reports that UNESCO is quoting long discredited figures about the value of the illicit trade, stating that it is “estimated to be worth nearly $10 billion each year”. Whose estimates? UNESCO doesn’t say. Certainly not mine. I was co-author of a recent European Union report that debunked such outlandish figures (pages 78-96). UNESCO should be supporting good quality evidence-led research into the trade of a type that is sorely needed but in short supply, not wasting money on glitzy media presentations. And it should be reading the results of research when it does exist, not ignoring it.

In these populist days of fake news and alternative facts, scaremongering campaigns just don’t cut it. As the Art Newspaper reports demonstrate, they are badly counterproductive as they can be used to undermine more realistic assessments of the illicit trade and the damage it causes. Reliable documentation and research are key for effective policy and action.

And let us be clear, fifty years after the adoption of the UNESCO Convention the persistence of illicit trade is not a cause for celebration, it is a cause for reflection and despair.