A rigorous due diligence approach to be exercised by all involved in the antiquities trade to ensure illegally excavated objects do not enter the market, or if they do, they are quickly returned to their legal owner
I am writing from the ancient Persian city of Isfahan in the midst of a cultural heritage study tour of Iran. Contemporary Iran is properly immensely proud of its history and the cultural heritage treasures it has produced and can now display. Even so, as my study tour has progressed I have come to appreciate how deeply many Iranians still feel about the continuing absence of many of their original historic treasures in foreign institutions. The Louvre Museum in Paris, for instance, has possession of the basalt stele containing the Code of Hammurabi, excavated in 1901 by French archaeologists and one of the earliest set of laws ever discovered, while the British Museum in London holds the Cyrus Cylinder, an ancient clay cylinder containing important information in a cuneiform script about the Persian conquest of Babylon in 539 BC. The cylinder was excavated in 1879 by an expedition that was sponsored by the British Museum.
Of course, Iran is far from alone in wishing to repatriate cultural heritage treasures like these from foreign climes with the ongoing dispute between Greece and the United Kingdom regarding the return of the so called Elgin marbles being perhaps the most notorious and long standing illustration of such claims. Regrettably, for many countries in the Middle East the more immediate and pressing current concern about their cultural heritage treasures is to protect them from the threat of damage, theft and destruction associated with the armed conflicts consuming the region.
However, all is not doom and gloom as I believe recent experience in both Australia and India demonstrates. The well publicised events surrounding the acquisition by both the Australian National Gallery of Art [NGA] in Canberra, and the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney, of numbers of rare and valuable Indian artefacts of seemingly dubious provenance from the New York City based antiquities dealer Subhash Kapoor has resulted in a searching review of the acquisition policies and practices of both galleries, and the ongoing repatriation of objects whose true identity and place of origin can be established authoritatively. Mr Kapoor at present remains unconvicted of any crime and continues to languish in jail while awaiting trial in Tamil Nadu. The evidence to date suggests that he successfully operated a very lucrative and sophisticated business stealing artefacts from isolated, poorly secured and documented locations and then fabricated suitable background stories regarding their purported provenance. The Australian galleries were also far from being the sole victims of these fraudulent activities.
The alleged extensive and long term criminal conduct engaged in by Mr Kapoor and his criminal associates is a timely reminder of the need for rigorous due diligence to be exercised by all involved in the antiquities trade to ensure illegally excavated, exported or stolen objects do not enter the market in the first place, or if they do, they are quickly identified and returned to their legal owner.
(The writer, a lawyer and criminologist, is currently an Honorary Professor in the Faculty of Law at the University of Sydney, Australia. A member of the Australian National Cultural Heritage Committee, and a former Director of the Australian Institute of Criminology in Canberra, He has also published widely on issues associated with art crime and cultural heritage protection.)