Italy rules in favour of private property rights for cultural heritage

Italy rules in favour of private property rights for cultural heritage

Ministry’s legal head reinforces ‘innocent until proven guilty’ principle in interpreting law

The Italian Ministry of Culture has issued a potentially ground-breaking statement, following a court ruling. It challenges current thinking on cultural heritage and patrimony and reinforces private property rights.

Essentially the statement addresses conflicting priorities between private property rights and the Italian state’s desire to protect its cultural heritage, and how this conflict addresses proof of ownership.

Recent years have seen a significant shift in attitudes among state authorities and law enforcement towards the idea of reversing the burden of proof regarding the legitimate ownership of antiquities and ancient coins. This is despite private property rights being enshrined in all fundamental clauses of international human rights conventions and in both common law and natural justice. Guilty until proved innocent has almost become the new normal.

Now, however, comes evidence of a fight back against this fundamentally undemocratic idea. This statement is one of them, and it has an additional welcome twist.

It arose after Italy’s Directorate-General of the Department of Archaeology, Fine Art and Landscape sought advice from the legal department on how to interpret Article 72 of the Cultural Property Act. As Coins Weekly notes: “This article governs the import of archaeological (numismatic) objects originally from Italy and demands extensive proof of origin.”

The legal department’s head, renowned professor of law Antonio Tarasco, came back with a surprising statement, acknowledging competing views. On the one hand, some lawyers argue that protecting Italian cultural heritage is a priority that renders significant objects as state property unless private ownership can be proved (reversal of the burden of proof); on the other are lawyers who argue that private ownership should take priority except in the most exceptional circumstances.

Law professor acknowledges Court of Cassation ruling as precedent

This dichotomy led the professor to look at the part documentation has played over the years in establishing ownership rights for coins in Italy. The first thing he noted was that as late as the 1980s, retaining proof of purchase was highly unusual. But he also noted that in 2009, his department insisted that “proper documentation issued by the countries of origin” was essential in establishing the lawful circulation of objects.

Importantly, this meant that any certification issued on import had to be renewed at the appropriate time or the Italian State might take possession of the item in question.

Fast forward to 2021, however, and Italy’s Court of Cassation – the highest appeal court which focuses only on how laws are interpreted – re-established the priority of private ownership without automatically having to provide supporting documentation (innocent until proven guilty).

Professor Tarasco points out that this meets the test of proportionality and reasonableness (just as the ADA has been arguing needs to happen with the EU import licensing regulation 2019/880). Of particular note is what Professor Tarasco has to say about this: “Forcing citizens (be they collectors or professional numismatists who buy abroad) to provide (almost fiendishly extensive) proof of the legitimate origin of the coins they buy, which must even date back to before 1909 [when Italy’s patrimony law was passed], is ultimately making it more difficult to buy – and therefore import into Italy – significant numismatic material that may one day enter public collections.”

The welcome twist Professor Tarasco adds at the end of his statement argues that making imports more difficult is actually damaging to Italian cultural heritage: “If we look closely, we can see that this approach – even if applied with good intentions – will not result in Italy protecting its national cultural property, but rather losing it.”

A fascinating statement from the head of the legal department of Italy’s Ministry of Culture, then. With all this in mind, how does Professor Tarasco view Italy’s application of Article 4 of the EU regulation 2019/880 from June 2025? It insists on the sort of “fiendishly extensive” documentation and evidence that effectively reverses the burden of proof in the way he decries here. And how does he feel about the Memorandum of Understanding Italy shares with the United States, which does exactly the same?

Professor Tarasco has highlighted the importance of proportionality and reasonableness here – qualities echoed in the European Commission President’s guiding principles for policy. If the Italian government’s leading legal authority on the issue, together with its highest court, acknowledges that private property rights have priority over what may be seen as the national interest in this way, how can it continue to move forward with either the new EU law or its MoU?

W.C.O. data backs trade view of cultural heritage crime once again

W.C.O. data backs trade view of cultural heritage crime once again

The World Customs Organisation has finally published a new report following the 2019 report, covering two years from 2019-2021, probably delayed because of the Covid 19 pandemic. Its results once again show that global levels of illicit trade in cultural property are far lower than claimed.

In the press release we read: “This year, the analysis provided in this Report is based on data collected from 138 Member administrations. Previously composed of six sections, the Report now covers seven key areas of risk in the context of Customs enforcement: Anti-money laundering and terrorist financing; Cultural heritage; Drugs; Environment; IPR, health and safety; Revenue; and Security.”

It also states: “The analysis contained in this Report is mainly based on the collection of data from the WCO Customs Enforcement Network (CEN) — a database of worldwide Customs seizures and offences”….

“However, the CEN database relies heavily on voluntary submissions by Members hence the quantity and quality of the data submitted to the system has its limitations”…

“However, as part of this new methodology, the data and information sources used to elaborate this Report has been enlarged to include various open sources.”

While the rest of the report might be “mainly based on the collection of data from the WCO Customs Enforcement Network (CEN)”, in the introduction to the Cultural Heritage chapter on page 57, the WCO goes further, admitting: “Unfortunately, the data received through the WCO’s Customs Enforcement Network (CEN) in 2020-2021 being incomplete, the following analysis will be mostly based on open source information.”

Case studies based on media reports rather than primary research

The result for the Cultural Heritage section is that most of the case studies are based on newspaper articles, sometimes even on events that happened decades ago, and have nothing to do with recent trafficking activities. This is alarming as much of the problem with false data plaguing the cultural property sector stems from misreporting in the media. It is even more alarming when the misleading picture created by a surface reading of the chapter will undoubtedly be used as ‘evidence’ in future campaigns against the art market, as past reports have been.

The WCO is supposed to report recent and reliable figures, like figure 3 on page 35, showing that the number of worldwide reported cultural goods cases for 2021 is a mere 156, that is 1.1 case per reporting country….

A newly introduced graph (shown here) in the WCO report (Page 17, Fig. 4) reveals precisely what the ADA and its fellow association IADAA have reported over the past years: the illicit trade in cultural heritage is so small that it barely shows in the statistics. Not only is it the smallest category – so small that you have to look carefully in case you miss it – but the graph also shows that seizures have fallen by around 50% between 2019 and 2021.

Let’s not forget, too, that the Cultural Heritage category is not limited to antiquities, as so many mistakenly believe; it covers 13 distinct sub-categories, including: all forms of art, antiques and collectables, household items, flora and fauna, books and manuscripts. In 2019, the top three categories of recovered item sub-categories were: Fauna, Flora, Minerals, Anatomy & Fossils; Other; and Hand-painted or Hand-drawn articles and works of art. No mention of antiquities, which did not even warrant its own sub-category.

All of this begs the question as to why, in its chapter on Cultural Heritage, the WCO has chosen to focus exclusively on photographs of seized antiquities (at least one of which seems to be a fake) alongside fossils and coins. The choice appears politically charged.Consistent reporting of

The WCO has stated in the past and here that there is under-reporting of crime in the culture sector and that it only counts seizures and cases reported via the Customs Enforcement Network (CEN), the implication being that the problem is much larger.

Figures consistently show low rate of illicit trade in cultural property

However, the miniscule share of illicit trade represented in its reports over the years by cultural property has been consistent, only now augmented by media reports not sourced via the CEN.

It further boosts this chapter of the report with a summary of Pandora VI, the latest in a seven-year campaign of international operations involving mass seizures and arrests. What the WCO, Europol or Interpol have never done, however, is to provide data on how many of their seizures and arrests later prove to be justified and how many were shown to be related to terrorism financing. It is not just the trade asking for these figures, academic investigators want them too to see how effective these operations are.

Previously the WCO has attempted to rebut the ADA and IADAA’s analysis of its reports, stating that the figures cannot be relied on. As our analysis always provides transparent sources for the data emanating from the reports, however, the WCO’s case against our analysis simply does not stand up.

Ultimately, its figures must be indicative of the global state of affairs; if they are misleading, why publish them?

SPREADING THE WORD IN BRUSSELS

ADA chairman Joanna van der Lande has written the first in a series of articles on issues concerning antiquities and the art market for distribution within the European Parliament and to representatives at the recent Davos summit.

The article appears in MACE, a Brussels-based political magazine whose purpose is to raise issues of cent and spark debate among politicians, civil servants and other people of influence within the EU machine.

Articles will follow by IADAA chairman Vincent Geerling on data, fake news and how they help create misguided policy, and Ivan Macquisten on the wider implications of how this is affecting the art market.

The objective is to encourage deeper understanding of the challenges the market faces, with a view to establishing better relationships with decision makers on the political stage.

The Stargazer Judgment – Some key lessons

Martin Wilson is the former Chief General Counsel for Christie’s, the auction house at the centre of this case. Now as Chief General Counsel for Phillips, who do not trade in antiquities, his interest in the subject is academic. Here he shows a firm grasp of the relevant arguments at hand in a detailed article published on Linked In.

Wilson gives the back story to how Turkey ended up launching a legal claim for the return of the Guennol Stargazer, an Anatolian marble figure dating to around 3,000 BC. It also explains why Turkey lost its claim in the District Court. A lack of evidence to support its claim combined with its failure to act for years when it could have done so weakened Turkey’s case beyond hope here.

Arguably Wilson’s most important observation is as follows: “It is sometimes assumed that, because of the complex ethical, political and historical issues which surround them, cultural restitution claims are not subject to the same evidential requirements and rules of justice which apply to other claims or at least that these rules should be applied less rigidly. This ruling illustrates that this will not be the approach where the parties bring their dispute before the US Courts. It confirms that in common with any ordinary civil ownership dispute, a party claiming restitution must, if it hopes to prevail in a US court of law, be able to satisfy the evidential burden of proving the facts necessary to establish ownership in accordance with the requirements of the law.”

This may also explain why Italy has avoided going to court in its claim against Alan Safani.

Wilson notes the increasingly commonplace arguments used by source countries in their attempts to reclaim artefacts: “It is not uncommon for the parties on either side of the debate in cultural property restitution cases to assume bad faith and wrongdoing. The Turkish government followed a line of argument which is commonly used in cultural restitution cases – that an antiquity outside of its country of origin without evidence of how it came to leave that country should be treated by collectors as a red flag and that there is a presumption of illegal export or excavation which arises in such circumstances.”

Fortunately, although source countries’ attempts to reverse the burden of proof in this way may work under the terms of their Memoranda of Understanding with the United States, it is a different matter when these claims go to court, as this case shows.

Wilson also reminds us that statutes of limitation do count, although they are constantly overlooked.

Crucially, he concludes with some sound advice: “While the judgment does not say so, the outcome of the Stargazer case highlights the shortcomings of the debate over cultural property being expressed as a question of “ownership”.” Certainly, while source countries continue in their attempts to ride roughshod over individuals’ legal rights, no one will be satisfied.

UK government sets out reasons for revoking damaging E.U. import licensing law

The June 30 House of Lords debate on the Revocation of the EU import licensing regulations within the UK has summarised neatly the problems with this law.

In his statement to his peers, government whip Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay said the government hoped to bring clarity to what was required under UK law by the changes.

Some of his fellow peers argued that revoking the law in full meant weakening the UK’s defences against crime. However, Lord Parkinson said the EU legislation would create “complexity and confusion” at borders, and two important reasons persuaded the government to go for full revocation.

The first was that “the provision applies to almost all cultural goods created or discovered in non-EU countries, regardless of their age, value or date of export, and because there is no requirement in the regulation for any person to provide evidence to demonstrate either lawful export or unlawful removal from the country of creation or discovery”.

This meant that in the event of a claim of unlawful export, it was not clear where the burden of proof would lie or what evidence would be required.

“These issues could result in cultural goods being delayed or detained at the border, and might deter people from importing cultural goods to sell in the UK art market or museums from lending objects for exhibitions in this country.”

Success of existing legislation

The second reason for revoking the law was that provisions the UK already has in place are proving successsful.

“The effectiveness of our existing legislation was demonstrated very recently, when we returned to Libya a statue which had been unlawfully removed from that country and which was found and detained by HMRC at Heathrow Airport. This is only the most recent example.”

In the latest round of consultations with the EU over the upcoming 2025 enforcement of the import licensing regulations, the ADA and others have been at pains yet again to demonstrate how unworkable the legislation is.

The objection is not to the protection of borders and fighting crime, but to the impossibility of the compliance demands, the net effect of which would be to destroy much of the art market within Europe. It is this aspect that those objecting to the revocation in the Lords do not seem to grasp.

So far the European Commission has signed serious concerns raised in previous consultations, including earlier this year.

Still not resolved is exactly what documents will be required for legal import. Article 8 (1) d of the draft legislation states that “Other types of documents to submit in support of an import licence application may be, but are not limited to the following” before listing 11 different types of document that must be submitted for approval.

Numerous other problems remain within the draft legislation, from uncertainty over the number or location of customs offices to how property would be marked, as well as very onerous compliance measures that would make a vast number of imports uneconomic.