Fifty-two years ago today, the UNESCO 1970 Convention on the prevention of illicit trade in cultural property first came into force. Nine days ago, Kenya became the latest country to finally ratify the Convention, adopting it into domestic law. It comes into force there on May 15.

It’s worth remembering that delay: 52 years plus three weeks.

And it’s well worth revisiting the terms of the Convention because so many people these days misinterpret it for their own ends.

As its articles set out, it was designed to protect exceptional objects – national treasures specifically designated as important in published lists by the countries where they originated (Article 1). Today those campaigning against the art market argue that it covers every last commonplace artefact: it doesn’t. What’s more, few if any States Parties have submitted such lists of important works.

States Parties to the Convention make seven pledges under Article 5. These include a further commitment to keeping an updated national inventory of protected property (few, if any do); organising the supervision and protection of archaeological excavations (few do); and ensuring that interested parties such as curators, collectors and the market observe the principles of the Convention (these parties tend to do this themselves).

Article 6 commits States Parties to introducing a system of export licensing that includes the issuance of an export certificate or licence (only some do).

Article 7.b(ii) introduces one of the key elements of the Convention: “The States Parties to this Convention undertake: at the request of the State Party of origin to take appropriate steps to recover and return any such cultural property imported after the entry into force of this Convention in both States concerned, provided, however, that the requesting State shall pay just compensation to an innocent purchaser or to a person who has valid title to that property.” [emphasis added].

The words highlighted here in Article 7.b(ii) are vital. They show that the terms of the Convention only apply to a State Party after it has adopted them into its national legislation either automatically or via ratification. So, in Kenya’s case that is May 15, 2024.

Who signed up to the Convention and when?

The adoption list shows that the first countries to adopt the Convention were Bulgaria, Ecuador and Nigeria, which did so on the first day of enforcement, April 24, 1972.

Apart from Kenya, countries that have ratified or accepted the Convention much more recently include Switzerland (2004), Afghanistan (2005), Germany (2008), The Netherlands (2009), Austria (2015), Ethiopia (2018), Yemen (2019) and Malawi (2022). Many countries in Africa and Asia did not accede to the Convention until the 21st century.

An interesting case in point is Egypt, which did not accept the Convention until July 5, 1983. Up to that time, not only had Egypt overseen a system of licensed dealers selling antiquities for legal export, it even ran a saleroom from the Cairo Museum. The picture here shows a visitor inspecting items for sale there around 1965.

Why is this important? Because under numerous proposals now being made – in particular via Regulation (EC) 2019/880 within the European Union – a widespread attempt is being made to enforce the terms of the Convention on a global basis from April 24, 1972.

This means imposing its rules on States Parties that have not agreed to such a move. In Egypt’s case, it will effectively outlaw any item sold and exported legally from Egypt in the 11-year period between 1972 and 1983 for which documentary proof to the standards demanded today cannot be provided to show that the purchase and export were legal. In reality, that will mean just about everything, because the export licence, which it would be essential to produce today, probably no longer exists and, in the extremely rare cases where it did, it would probably not have sufficient identifiable detail to meet the exacting standards now imposed for import.

It should be remembered that in 1980, for instance, no requirement would have existed to retain an export licence once used – indeed it would have expired. (Even today no requirement subsists to retain such licences once used and expired.) In many, if not most cases, a single export licence would have covered multiple items, and so would not have stayed with any or all of them once the export/import process had been completed. Items then sold on to new owners legally would not have been accompanied by the export licence, and many of these items would have changed hands several times since.

The challenge for the private citizen

How would a current owner supply the required proof under such common circumstances?

The retroactive application of the 1970 UNESCO Convention terms by national law enforcement bodies such as customs would effectively outlaw objects that have been exported and traded since entirely legitimately. Such an imposition would be in direct contravention of human rights conventions (as well as basic principles of international law) to which the countries imposing these new rules are signatories. As a reminder, Article 17.2 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: “No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property,” while Article 1 of the Protocol to the European Convention of Human Rights states: “Every natural or legal person is entitled to the peaceful enjoyment of his possessions. No one shall be deprived of his possessions except in the public interest and subject to the conditions provided for by law and by the general principles of international law.”

‘Arbitrary’ has a meaning that includes “unrestrained and autocratic in the use of authority”, while “general principles of international law” include the concept of innocent until proven guilty.

By retroactively outlawing legitimate activity and doing so in a way that an individual cannot demonstrate their innocence, the authorities effectively breach the human rights conventions, yet this is what is proposed.

It should also be remembered that the articles of the UNESCO Convention were drawn up specifically to prevent such an imbalance of interests, as noted by one of its architects Mark B. Feldman in his 2023 book Footnotes to History.

Under Article 7.b(ii) of the Convention, in Kenya’s case, its terms should only apply from May 15, 2024, not 52 years ago.

As we celebrate the 52nd birthday of the UNESCO Convention on the means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, it is timely to remind those who support its aims that they should follow its terms and not abuse it for their own undemocratic ends.