India Needs a ‘Local’ Push to Stop Cultural Property Trafficking

PM Modi recently returned from his US trip with 157 antiquities that had been stolen from India.

4 min read
<div class="paragraphs"><p>Over 157 artefacts and antiquities have been handed over to India by the United States.</p></div>

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has returned from his recent trip to the United States with 157 antiquities that had been stolen from India and found their way to art markets abroad. This welcome announcement underlines that the theft and illicit trafficking of cultural property represents a global challenge and needs global cooperation. In the Indian context, the approaches to address this issue are especially compelling, given the complex layers of archaeological heritage and extensive museum collections that span an expansive geography.

Though a long-standing problem, cultural racketeering has burgeoned during the COVID-19 pandemic. Globally, the health crisis has stretched thin the security of both sites and collections owing, to a large extent, to the necessary diversion of resources towards pandemic management.


Regional Impetus Can Drive Global Action

International organisations such as the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) have been at the forefront in the fight against cultural heritage crimes. Their combined expertise and global partnerships have led to the establishment of standard-setting instruments that enhance responses to and the protection against cultural theft.

In the current context, a timely and reinvigorated regional impetus could strengthen the global action against the impoverishment of the shared heritage of humanity by illegal movement and looting of cultural property. India, with its active network of experts and experience of managing diverse cultural collections, could offer many lessons.

The 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property (hereafter, the 1970 Convention) coupled with the UNODC mandate in the prevention of organised crime and cultural trafficking, offer systematic tools to strengthen national capacity.

India Has an Important Role to Play

India has been a prominent global actor in tackling illicit cultural trafficking and also ratified the 1970 Convention. The country has underscored the role of media in raising awareness about cultural property theft and the 2003 Joint Parliamentary Forum held in New Delhi offers much reflection to date about the advantages of advocacy.

While the Forum then focused on the proliferation of illegal cross-border trade in cultural goods, fuelled by the crisis in Iraq and Afghanistan, the pandemic now presents novel challenges.

The Archaeological Survey of India serves as the nodal agency for the 1970 Convention, and the complementary work of interest groups could offer additional lessons in capacity building, especially in the development of critical preventive measures at vulnerable sites. Social media, coupled with informed journalism and inclusive decision-making across governance levels, can also offer an encouraging step forward.

A key measure is the development of digital inventories and professional documentation of cultural property. While national institutions have well addressed such needs, local and regional museums may benefit from augmenting their digitisation capacities.

A nationally coordinated approach would be extremely useful, and a good example could be the development of a long-advocated national thesaurus of terminologies and descriptors of object categories. Such tools, if compatible in regional languages and equipped to report theft instantly, could facilitate the interception of stolen objects before they enter illegal trade channels.


Roping in Tech For Inventories and Data

Object ID is a tool developed by the International Council of Museums (ICOM) for a rapid communication process. It is an international standard to enable all in the communication loop to understand the nine essential characteristics of the stolen object: type of object, materials and techniques, measurements, inscriptions and markings, distinguishing features, title, subject, date and period, and maker. Digital imaging, which could nowadays be done via smartphone applications in numerous regional languages, can optimise the recognition of the stolen object, prevent its movement and intercept it.

The Criminal Investigation Department (CID) in Chennai has documented the ability of digitally savvy-illicit networks to access inventories and target theft in vulnerable contexts. The availability of mechanisms such as Object ID conjoined with training for critical coordinating agencies, customs authorities, and everyone in the counter-trafficking network to utilise advanced tools, could enhance the collective response.

While the recent repatriation of artefacts from Australia to India has generated considerable reporting and parliamentary discussions, a concerted dialogue with multi-stakeholder engagement could spotlight the larger problem — though both countries are State Parties to the 1970 Convention with appropriate national legal instruments, the objects were purchased through third countries.

Cultural Thefts as a Funding Source for Other Crimes

Heritage objects, hence, must be documented with evidence-based provenance, ethical imperatives following the ICOM Code of Ethics and made accessible for research and interpretation. Arguably, it is these considerations that led to the return of several objects from Australia to India. Provenance research of objects prior to acquisition and those that are already in the collections has now become mandatory in several countries.

The illegal movement of cultural property is a multilateral concern and can itself be a funding source for other transnational organised crimes.

With the increasing significance of the 1970 Convention is the need for the localisation of the International Guidelines for Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice Responses with Respect to Trafficking in Cultural Property and Other Related Offences.

While digital affordances can help with documentation of cultural property, safeguarding them against misuse by illegitimate trading outfits is equally important. Preventing the expansion of illicit networks would not only prevent the exploitation of humanity’s shared heritage but also safeguard community identity.

(Eric Falt is Director, UNESCO New Delhi, and Pr. Amareswar Galla holds the UNESCO Chair on Museums. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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