The black market of antiquities and cultural constitutes is one of the most persistent illegal thefts in the world.
In an effort to protect the world’s heritage property, The UNESCO 1970 Convention was created. It is an international treaty to prohibit and prevent the illicit trafficking of cultural property. Organizing UNESCO took seven years and a panel of experts to create.
The world’s artifacts are not documented until they are discovered. This creates a dangerous market for stolen artifacts. They may never be recovered after they enter the black market—because no one knows they are missing.
Why Is the UNESCO Treaty Important for Collectors?
When buying art abroad, you need to be sure that you have not purchased a piece of cultural heritage, because it will be confiscated at customs. We spoke with Barbara Hoffman of The Hoffman Law Firm, a boutique art law firm with a niche in global transactional and litigation practice. She explained the risk of buying a protected antiquity.
“If someone tries to sell you an antiquity, you need to be extremely clear about the provenance of such an object,” declared Hoffman. “You need to make sure it was in the country before we had these regulations.”
If you find an old sculpture at an art fair in Spain, for example, that is clearly from early 20th century Ghana, the only legal way you to bring it across another border is if you can prove it left Ghana before 1970. If an artifact left its home country before the UNESCO treaty was enacted, you’re safe.
On the other hand, you will also want to secure proof that replicas are not real antiques.
If you have Marie Antoinette relics that you bought, knowing that they are recreations, then you will need a certificate claiming they are not genuine antiques in order to cross the border. If customs believes they are real, then they will confiscate them.
What Is Cultural Property Exactly?
The text of the convention defines cultural property as anything “on religious or secular grounds, that is specifically designated by each State as being of importance for archeology, prehistory, history, literature, art or science and which belongs to the following categories.” There are 14 categories spanning from flora and fauna, to postage stamps, to paintings or carvings.
For the full list of categories, consult the text here.
How Can I Avoid Bringing Cultural Heritage Home?
The first step to respecting the UNESCO treaty is being aware. If you’ve made it this far in this post, you are already ahead of some of your peers. You understand the treaty and its purpose, and have the tools to discover what artifacts are protected.
The second step is to ask questions and consult a professional when necessary. Ask the dealer or gallerist to show you the provenance documents and tell you the story behind this piece, whether to prove it entered the country before 1970 or it’s a replica.
If you have any concerns, you will want to contact an art lawyer, who can give you the next steps.
Whenever buying art abroad, we suggest you consult our comprehensive guide here. International art buying and abiding by the UNESCO treaty is simple once you understand the regulations at hand. Savvy collectors, like yourself, stay informed to make productive purchases.
Artwork Archive provides tools for collectors to protect and preserve their collections. Understand more about legal, insurance, and investment requirements in our Essential Guide to Collecting Art.