Trade bodies condemn UNESCO proposals to regulate art market

Led by CINOA, the international trade federation for art and antiques dealers, industry bodies across the world have reacted strongly to what they see as “very alarming” proposals from UNESCO to regulate the art market.

The proposals have been drafted by a panel of academics, civil servants and legal specialists from countries that have no sizeable art market themselves; they give the impression of having no serious idea of, or interest in, how the art market operates.

The outcome is predictably draconian, unrealistic and extreme, and if passed into law by States Parties to the 1970 UNESCO Convention on illicit trade would constitute an existential threat to much of the wider art market.

Published under the heading Draft Model Provisions on the Prevention and Fight against the Illicit Trafficking of Cultural Property, the proposals even attempt to redefine the meaning of the term ‘cultural property’ so that it has a far wider meaning that that set out in the Convention. This is an early indicator of how UNESCO appears to be sanctioning an upgrade of the Convention without going through the formal process of properly consulting States Parties on it.

It is not the whole set of provisions that cause a problem. In fact, as a whole, Provisions 1 to 13 set out useful proposals for dealing with the scourge of looting and trafficking linked to cultural property. Of particular note are Provisions 6 and 7, in which UNESCO finally targets States Parties over their obligations under Article 5 of the 1970 Convention to protect vulnerable sites from criminals.

Better methods of protection

“This is something that the art market has reiterated for many years,” says IADAA chairman Vincent Geerling, who has been very vocal on the point. “Fulfilling those obligations are the most effective actions in the fight against illicit trafficking and are long overdue, especially the establishment of digital inventories of protected cultural property (Provision 7) and should include the temporary warehousing at archaeological excavations. Photographing and recording archaeological finds before they are stored would provide a more effective means of reporting possible thefts quickly to INTERPOL (as obliged) for uploading onto their database, thereby making them unsaleable and thus preventing trafficking.”

It is when we arrive at provisions 14 to 18 that the trouble starts. These attempt to regulate the art market, something that has nothing to do with UNESCO and should be excised from the proposals.

Provision 15 proposes: “Only private individuals or legal entities, holders of a license issued by the competent authority, can exercise a professional activity directly or indirectly related to the art market.”

This astonishing power grab effectively imposes compulsory licensing on the global art market in a way that it would be impossible to comply with and which, if followed to the letter, would risk exposing art market operators to legal action from their clients.

It also constitutes a serious threat to human rights as, by default, it would remove the commercial value of countless items in private ownership around the world, as well as depriving their owners of the ability to dispose of them how they see fit.

As one art market lawyer responded: “This provision is highly unrealistic. It envisions that only licensed businesses will sell art; however, most countries do not have the capacity or will to create the necessary bureaucracy for such an endeavour. There is an expectation for these individuals to hold legal degrees and be experts in foreign law when such laws are often unavailable or are not consistently applied in practice. They are also expected to maintain a register of movements or transactions, but such record keeping is of little use unless it is maintained in a database, which again would require a major undertaking.”

Risking breach of trust among states parties

The enforcement of this set of proposals would effectively undermine the existing UNESCO Convention because it would supersede its powers and remit. This would constitute a catastrophic breach of trust of States Parties that had not expressly acceded to the changes as formal alterations to the Convention.

Several countries have already made it clear that they will not accede to these proposals. Australia has said it will not oblige dealers to maintain a register of cultural property and those they trade with; Belgium, France, Sweden and the UK do not accept the wider definition of cultural property; and the United States has reserved the right to determine whether or not impose export or import controls and does not accept that the Convention can be applied retroactively. These reservations alone, which include three of the world’s largest art markets, effectively make the proposals unworkable.

It is telling that not only was no member of the art market co-opted onto the panel of ‘experts’ and not one of them hails from a leading art market nation, but also that leading trade bodies such as CINOA were not directly informed or consulted on the matter – CINOA only learned about the proposals because it was tipped off by someone who found out about them.

Reactions from other leading figures and organisations in the market have been equally damning. The European Federation of Auctioneers points out that the industry is already subject to extensive legal restrictions, including over due diligence.

The draft provisions come at the same time as UNESCO is finalising its code of ethics for the art market, another set of rules that it wishes to impose on traders while ignoring the concerns they expressed during the consultation period.

Deeply flawed questionnaire

The questionnaire involved was also deeply flawed because it failed to consider different circumstances for trading artworks, while also assuming that all restitution claims were valid, when so many are not, and that any export not accompanied by a licence is illicit, when that is not the case.

CINOA has pointed out to UNESCO that its consultation over the code of ethics elicited a very poor response from States Parties (only 12%), with only 27 responses from across the entire art market, which it argues “cannot accurately represent the art trade”.

Although UNESCO’s policies are only advisory, many fear that they will be imposed, first by declaring the code of ethics obligatory, then by using that to force through the Model Provisions. While leading art market countries may not support the measures, active source countries like Mexico, who already operate extremist policies regarding cultural property, would be only too delighted with them.

The summary impression conveyed by the UNESCO proposals and the organisation’s approach to these matters is that they are driven by an extreme ideology that is prepared to trample human rights to achieve its ends rather than an honest desire to fight crime and protect the vulnerable. Coupled with numerous examples of breaches of trust – from the fraudulent advertising campaign The Real Price of Art to its continued promotion of bogus data about the art market – UNESCO’s expressed wish to work with the art market ring increasingly hollow.

ART MARKET BACKLASH AGAINST FALSE CLAIMS AND BOGUS DATA

CINOA, IADAA and others call for major review and propose five-point plan for future

Trade and cultural heritage groups including global trade federation CINOA and international antiquities association IADAA have called for a major international review of policy and legislation as it applies to the art market.

The call comes in a letter after the US Treasury review of anti-money laundering proposals found the art market to be low risk, with Congress turning its attention to shell companies and the real estate industry instead for the moment.

CINOA secretary general Erika Bochereau and IADAA chairman Vincent Geerling pointed out that all of the numerous recent studies researching possible links between the art market, money laundering and terrorism financing found no justification for clamping down on the market on this basis.

They argued that the lack of hard evidence produced by any of the reports meant that authorities should stop targeting “dealers, collectors and auction houses with wave after wave of damaging and unjust legislation.” Policy making is “being driven by assumptions and false claims,” they argued in their open letter.

Why false claims and bogus data abound

It is thought that one of the reasons so much misinformation is so widely spread is the interests of drawing attention to the pet issues of international NGOs, law enforcement and others all vying for attention and funding as they push their agendas.

The trade and cultural heritage groups singled out UNESCO’s claim that the annual value of trade in illicit cultural goods is $10 billion, a claim that is demonstrably false and not supported by the source that UNESCO gave for it. Despite being informed of this in November 2020, and despite numerous public clarifications on this point by the trade, UNESCO continues to promote the figure and it is still quoted in the media.

The trade and cultural heritage groups have now set out a five-point plan for better policy, listed in the Art Newspaper as follows:

  1. “Policy makers, including governments, when discussing the development of and drafting any policy or legislation which impacts cultural property and the art market, should ensure that recognised representatives from the relevant sector of the art market are co-opted on to any relevant panel or consulting body.
  2. Regulatory review boards or panels assessing the impact of government proposals should focus on how far they have actively addressed concerns and suggestions raised by recognised market representatives, while all proposals should be tested against clear standards of evidence and proportionality.
  3. A designated contact person at the decision-making level of government should be named, whose role is to follow any on-going laws or regulations affecting the art and antiques market, and they should act as a sector contact, with whom the trade can open a dialogue to ensure that the conservation of art or cultural heritage objects is not being unintentionally demoted or ignored.
  4. All relevant active and pending cultural property legislation should be reviewed to take account of the facts and data currently available, particularly if those facts are at odds with the assumptions on which legislation was predicated.
  5. Legislators, particularly in the EU, should commission an independent review to analyse the way in which significant public resources, supposedly dedicated to combating illicit trade in cultural goods, have been wasted as a result of relying on misinformation. Clear guidance should be produced to prevent legislation affecting the art market from misdirecting resources in the future.”

As well as CINOA, signatories of the letter include: the ACPCP (American Council for the Preservation of Cultural Property), the ATADA (Authentic Tribal Art Dealers’ Association), the Committee for Cultural Policy (Cultural policy think tank and information source), Drouot Patrimoine auction house, the EFA (European Federation of Auctioneers), the Global Heritage Alliance advocacy group and the IADAA (International Association of Dealers in Ancient Art).

FIGHTING BOGUS INFORMATION ABOUT THE ART MARKET – 2021: REPORT SHEDS LIGHT ON SOURCES AND CAUSES OF FALSE DATA

CINOA, the global trade federation for dealers in the international art market, with 5,000-plus members, has published a wide-ranging new report that exposes the causes and sources of bogus information used to damage the market.

From the deliberate dissemination of false evidence, as seen in the October 2020 UNESCO advertising campaign, The Real price of art, to the misreporting of facts, the report shows how many bodies of international standing, from NGOs to law enforcement and even governments, perpetuate falsehoods about the art and antiques market.
It also demonstrates how the bogus evidence – as well as its constant reinforcement via the media and other sources – has directly influenced policy, including new laws that damage the market.

One of the most shocking aspects of all this has been the clear failure of highly influential bodies such as the European Commission and the United Nations Office for Drugs and Crime to properly check the sources of the information that they publish; the repercussions for legitimate interests have echoed down the years.

Another shameful feature is just how much of the false information now being relied on can be traced back to media articles and other reports that are decades old and either do not carry the information claimed at all or whose evidence has been completely misreported as it has been filtered through other sources over time.
Frequently cited claims that prove to have no foundation in fact whatsoever include:

  • Trafficking in cultural property is third only to that in drugs and weapons
  • 80-90% of sales of antiquities involve goods with illicit origins
  • Cultural property trafficking is a multi-billion dollar industry

However, bearing in mind the time, resources and legislation already dedicated to this subject in recent years, perhaps the most startling fact CINOA publishes is that it cannot find a single instance anywhere in the world of an arrest or seizure of artworks leading to confirmation that the items in question have been used to fund terrorism. Considering how keen the authorities are to demonstrate the link between the art market and terrorist financing, it is hard to believe that they would not engage in a major media campaign to publicise such a case if it ever arose.

Quite apart from the unwarranted damage this lack of probity has inflicted on the innocent, it has also led to a wider failure of policy, with real problems that need dealing with under international conventions and other agreements being ignored in favour of the pursuit of propaganda-fuelled ideology. While the report focuses on the repercussions for the art market, the institutional failures resulting from this misguided policy have claimed other victims, notably vulnerable cultural heritage sites and the vulnerable people living near them, who should enjoy better support as they are asked to help in the protection of their heritage.

Much of this inappropriate policy development is funded by public money, yet acts against the public interest. Even when its failures are drawn to the attention of the authorities responsible, as those involving UNESCO and the European Commission have been, they ignore or dismiss them and carry on as before. It is hard to think of any other walk of life where such scandalous behaviour would go unpunished, let alone continue to be encouraged and even celebrated.

Unlike many of the bodies it takes to task, the report provides properly checked primary sources, including weblinks, for all the data it publishes, so that they can readily be verified independently.

UNESCO marks 50th anniversary of 1970 Cultural Heritage Convention with fake campaign

UNESCO marks 50th anniversary of 1970 Cultural Heritage Convention with fake campaign

Above: The UNESCO advert that sparked suspicion and led to the campaign being unmasked as fake.

In what must be one of the most stunningly cynical attacks on the international art market yet, UNESCO has been caught out promoting a fake campaign to mark the 50th anniversary of its 1970 Cultural Heritage Convention – not once but twice.
The trade first realised something was wrong in late October when UNESCO launched The Real Price of Art campaign using a bogus figure of $10 billion as the estimated annual value of illicit cultural property across the globe.
As noted in the last news report published here, the ensuing email exchange revealed UNESCO’s source, the fact that it did not support the claim at all and the further fact that no reliable alternative source existed at all for the claim.
Advising UNESCO that in the absence of a reliable source, it was promoting inaccurate information in what is a highly sensitive area, our fellow organisation, The International Association of Dealers in Ancient Art (IADAA) asked that the error be corrected before it was disseminated any further than it already had been. This was followed by a letter from the art and antiques global trade federation CINOA also protesting about the figure.
The advice was ignored and UNESCO continued to promote the figure into November. It remains on the organisation’s website.
Then came another shocking revelation: the accompanying advertising campaign was almost entirely fraudulent. IADAA worked with CINOA and the ADA to expose this when suspicion arose about part of the content. Again, CINOA has written a letter to UNESCO Director General Audrey Azoulay to complain formally.
Handled by Paris agency DDB and supervised by senior UNESCO officials Ernesto Ottone Ramirez and Lazare Eloundo Assomo, The Real Price of Art campaign featured posters showing a number of artworks presented as though in the contemporary settings of collectors’ homes. Importantly, they are also presented as looted from their source countries and sold via the art market.
However, the joint investigation revealed that the images had been taken from The Metropolitan Museum of New York and actually showed pieces that had been in the museum’s collection legally for decades or longer.
 
How the fake campaign was unveiled
Suspicions were initially raised by one of the images, shown here, which depicted a funerary relief from Palmyra, dated 50-150 AD. Under the headline ‘Supporting an armed conflict has never been so decorative’, the accompanying description read: This priceless antiquity was stolen in the National Museum of Palmyra by Islamic State militants during their occupation of the city, before being smuggled into the European art market. The trade in antiquities is one of the terror group’s main sources of funding.
The trade realised that such an important piece would have been widely reported in the media if looted by ISIS and later seized, but those investigating knew that it hadn’t been. This led to a Google search and within minutes the truth was uncovered: the relief is actually in the Met Collection, where it can be seen clearly on the museum’s website. It was acquired by the museum in 1901, as its provenance states.
Within another few minutes, the rest of the lie was also uncovered.
A Côte d’Ivoire Moon mask dating to around 1880 also featured in the UNESCO campaign. Also presented in a contemporary interior, it was captioned ‘How do you erase a whole culture? Piece by piece’ and was described as follows: Moon Mask Côte d’Ivoire, ca 1880 – This African art object was looted in Abidjan as fighting took place following the electoral crisis of 2010-2011. A rare testimony to the pre-colonial history of Côte d’Ivoire, its loss is irreplaceable.
Again, the mask actually appears in The Met’s current collection, where it is described as Moon Mask ca. 1880 of the Baule peoples. The listed provenance dates back to 1954, giving the names of various owners through whose hands it passed in Paris and New York. Sold at Christie’s in April 2003, it remained in a private New York collection until 2015, when it passed to The Met.
The head of a Buddha from Afghanistan, dating to the 5th-6th century AD, also featured in UNESCO’s advertising campaign. Shown resting on a sideboard among books, it featured under the headline ‘Terrorism is such a great curator’ and was captioned as follows: This antiquity belongs to the Kabul Museum. In 2001, a large part of its collections was smashed into pieces by the Taliban. As the group was overthrown later that year, this priceless item was looted by local dealers and smuggled into the US market.
Except it wasn’t. Instead, it too appears in The Met Collection. In this case, not only does the listed provenance show that it was excavated in Tibet or Turkestan during the 1927-28 Trinkler expedition and that it was sold to The Met in 1930, it also cites four Met exhibitions in which it has since appeared, in 1940, 1971, 2007 and 2012-13.
The Met was not the only source for images falsely represented in the UNESCO campaign.
Under the headline ‘Art knows no frontiers. Neither does organized crime’, it pictured what was described as a Vessel with head Neck Peru, 4th-6th century A.D. – Before standing here, this piece of pre-Columbian art was looted in an illegal excavation by ‘subsistence diggers’. It passed through two middlemen, crossed Costa Rica and Florida before being sold to an art dealer in Europe, who sold it himself through an auction house.
The problem is that none of this is true. Instead it is a stock image from Alamy available for marketing use for around £180.00.
 
UNESCO’s ‘clarification’ after being caught out
After the Art Newspaper (see https://bit.ly/3pF7c5S) published the revelations, UNESCO eventually took down the images and replaced them with others, adding the following ‘clarification’:
“In an initial version of UNESCO’s campaign, the ‘Real Price of Art’, some posters displayed items from the Metropolitan Museum of Art (MET) database, which is in the public domain. UNESCO’s intention was to alert the general public by depicting objects of high cultural value, which should be on display in museums, presented in luxurious private interiors. UNESCO had no intention of questioning the provenance of items in the MET collection.
After discussions with the MET, who is a valuable partner to UNESCO, and in order to avoid any misunderstanding, UNESCO decided to remove all pictures of items from the MET collection. Only three magazines had already been printed. The digital versions of these publications were modified.
The rationale of the campaign is to capture the attention the general public with a view to encouraging them to exercise due diligence when purchasing cultural property. The campaign has been widely spread and original posters are shown above.
UNESCO regrets the use of MET images that caused any misunderstanding
.”
 
Despite the assurances that what had already been published via other internet sources had been modified, this was not the case. Indeed, even now the offending material is still clearly present on the web, as a simple Google search reveals (see, for example, https://bit.ly/365awiP).
 
UNESCO may well regret the embarrassment, but it doesn’t seem to have learned from it as the two hastily inserted replacement photos for the campaign testify. One, which retains the original caption almost in its entirety, shows another tribal mask, which UNESCO claims was looted in Abidjan in Côte d’Ivoire after the 2010 crisis. However, it wasn’t, as confirmed via email by the Director of the museum where it remains.
The other replacement advert shows an alabaster figure of a woman wearing polos headwear and an accompanying caption (under the headline Supporting an armed conflict has never been so decorative) that tells us: “This priceless antiquity was stolen from the National Museum of Aleppo when the fighting was at its peak in 2014, before being smuggled into the European market…”  

Again, not true. Following the earlier debacle in which the Peruvian pottery image was lifted from Alamy Stock Photos, this one comes from one of a series of digital photo archives, such as Getty Images (see https://bit.ly/364gVL5). It has been reversed for the purposes of this advert. In addition, the actual statuette itself remains in the Aleppo Museum, appearing on display in a video to celebrate the re-opening of the museum at the end of last year. (See https://bit.ly/33ecPy6 1.24 mins in). Another video features Khaled Al-Masri, Director of Aleppo Museums and Antiquities, who states that despite the museum being attacked during the conflict, its collection was entirely saved. (See https://bit.ly/369XErv).
“During the crisis the museums was under a fierce attack of armed gangs which directly targeted the museum with different types of mortars and missiles,” he says. “The museum infrastructure was massively affects [sic], nevertheless, its entire antiquities were saved thanks to the Syrian Arab Army efforts along with the museum’s employees who kept such antiquities safe.”

UNESCO effectively admitted the error by once again altering the advert of the Woman with polos so that it now reads: “A priceless antiquity similar to this was stolen from Syria…”. In other words, not only does it acknowledge that the statuette pictured was not stolen, but it also removes any mention of the National Museum of Aleppo, which had been held up as a beacon for others to follow because of the outstanding manner in which its collection had been protected from looting.
To be caught out once misleading the public like this is bad enough, but to embark immediately on a replacement campaign that is also fabricated beggars belief. Is UNESCO really not going to take responsibility here and do something serious about it?
 
If the evidence exists, why not publish it?
UNESCO keeps claiming that evidence of trafficking involving the art market is so widespread and clear. If so, why persist in publishing false information and go to such lengths to do so? Why not simply publish the real evidence instead?
The fact is that despite all of the claims over the past few years, very little evidence indeed has come to light linking the legitimate market in Mediterranean Classical civilisation, Middle Eastern and North African artefacts to looting and trafficking. The only evidence we are aware of at all of terrorism financing links is that from the documents linked to the Abu Sayyaf raid in 2015, and that showed that funds raised projected across a specific 12-month period from trafficking in antiquities, precious metals and minerals combined would be around the $4 million mark. Note that this is also not connected to the legitimate market in any way.
What this means is that a) the legitimate art market, including collectors, is being targeted and harassed by UNESCO and others in an entirely unreasonable manner that breaches their human rights and b) precious time and resources that should be spent on the priority of protecting vulnerable sites, stemming the growing tide of internet crime and carrying out effective research are being wasted on creating confected scenarios to explain politically driven campaigns for which there is no justification. This has potentially dangerous consequences for the poor and vulnerable in source countries. How does this fit with UNESCO’s UN mandate?
The UNESCO advertising campaign is a case in point. During his speech to the Latvia-sponsored conference Opportunities and Challenges of Art and Antiques Market Management in late November, UNESCO’s Director of Culture and Emergencies, Lazare Eloundou Assomo, stated that the art market claims trafficking is decreasing and has never financed terrorism. The art market does not argue either of these points. Instead it simply states that no evidence has been presented to support the levels of trafficking claimed by anti-trade campaigners and that the only clearly demonstrated link to terrorism financing so far shown is that stated above. This is what available data shows. Independently, the RAND Corporation report, published in May 2020 and based on open source data, also concluded that the claims over trafficking are exaggerated (See https://bit.ly/3fFnaIt).
Dismissing criticism of UNESCO’s The Real Price of Art campaign, Director Assomo said it had been “largely applauded” by all member states – presumably because they were not aware that it had been faked. It will be interesting to see how they react when they find out how their money has been spent.
Calling for more co-operation between the market and other stakeholders and the overcoming of division, he also stated that he wanted to make a clear distinction between the legitimate art market and traffickers. Readers will judge for themselves whether UNESCO’s campaign does this, especially bearing in mind that three of the confected stories in the adverts – those relating to the funerary relief, Buddha head and Peruvian vessel – all specifically accuse the art market of direct involvement in crime, including the funding of terrorism. We reproduce the offending adverts and the originals here to allow for a transparent comparison. While UNESCO’s online ‘clarification’ regrets any ‘misunderstanding’, it stops short of claiming that it did not intend to mislead. Director Assomo expressed his confidence in the success of the campaign, which he helped to supervise, during his Latvian conference speech. Others are far less sanguine about its intentions and consequences because the messages it gave out were clear and unambiguous, leading to a series of questions: 

  • How did the UNESCO supervisors supervise this campaign?
  • Who decided to use the Met images in this way?
  • Who knew about it and signed off the campaign and the replacement campaign?
  • What is UNESCO doing about it?
  • What measures are UNESCO taking to make sure that this doesn’t happen again and that those responsible are held to account?
  • How does UNESCO rebuild public trust and confidence after this?
  • How satisfied is UNESCO that it has followed ethical practice here?

Either the UNESCO officials – including its Director of Communications – knowingly deceived the public via this campaign or they were astonishingly incompetent and dangerously unaware of its likely impact. Neither scenario is reassuring.
Let’s not forget that UNESCO gave as its source for the $10 billion figure the Renold study, a joint venture with the European Commission. Setting aside Renold’s own denial that the figure could have come from him, surely any joint project should also abide by the Commission’s guiding principles.
In November last year, incoming President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyden, set out six guiding principles. One, relating to Interinstitutional relations and better policy making, states: “Proposals must be evidence based, widely consulted upon, subject to an impact assessment and reviewed by the Regulatory Scrutiny Board… A stronger relationship with citizens starts with building trust and confidence. I will insist on the highest levels of transparency and ethics[her emphasis] for the college as a whole. There can be no room for doubt about our behaviour or our integrity.”
So what does the European Commission President think about its partner, UNESCO’s campaign?

Time for UNESCO to stop using bogus figures about cultural property

In the latest of a string of baseless claims, UNESCO reports that the illicit trade in cultural property is estimated to be worth nearly $10 billion a year. It’s a handy figure to use as a headline to launch its 1970 Convention’s 50th anniversary conference and accompanying campaign. However, it gives no source for this claim. “As shown by The Real Price of Art campaign, in some cases, the looting of archaeological sites, which fuels this traffic, is highly organized and constitutes a major source of financing for criminal and terrorist organizations,” the article on its website continues.
Launched on October 20, the campaign has included the first International Day against Illicit Trafficking in Cultural Property on November 14 and an international conference (November 16-18) organised in partnership with the Federal Foreign Office of Germany, the European Commission and the Council of Europe.
Having asked the UNESCO author for the source of the $10 billion claim, our fellow trade association, IADAA, was sent a copy of the French version of the 2018 Joint European Commission-UNESCO Project report, Engaging the European Art Market in the fight against the illicit trafficking of cultural property, by Professor Marc-Andre Renold with the message that the evidence was in section C.
It isn’t.
As we pointed out to the author, the Renold study doesn’t mention a $10 billion figure anywhere. The closest it comes is in quoting an estimated figure of $6 billion to $8 billion from page 50 of the 2011 study by Frank Wehringer listed in the footnotes. However, Wehringer did not give it as his estimate but as a figure “regularly given” without providing any real source for it. He also said that “according to widespread statements, [this] makes it the third largest illegal market after drugs and weapons (according to estimates by UNESCO and FBI according to Anton 2010a: 2)”. In fact, this supposition is not true, as confirmed by Interpol and the WCO Illicit Trade Reports (the latest published in June), which yet again put the number of cases being investigated and seizures made in cultural property at 0.2% of the global total reported through the Customs Enforcement Network, whereas for drugs it was 35%/30% and for weapons 8%/8% – other risk categories were much higher than for cultural property, which was by far the smallest category).
In addition, the Renold study itself states: “There are no comprehensive and reliable statistics that would allow us to capture the true scale of illicit trafficking or monetary value of the black market in cultural goods.” This is a view adopted by Interpol, which has also stated that it never expects to have any reliable figures, as well as by the RAND Corporation report, studying open source data, published in May 2020.
As the ADA and IADAA pointed out to UNESCO, this is important because in recent years so many misguided policy decisions have been made on the back of false information, with the result that funding and other resources have been diverted away from where they are really needed in the fight against crime, including trafficking.
We then pointed out that in the absence of a reliable source for the $10 billion claim, UNESCO is currently promoting inaccurate information in what is a highly sensitive area. This being the case, we asked the author to correct the error before it was disseminated any further in the wider media than it already had been. As yet, we have received no further reply and the article remains unchanged on UNESCO’s website.

UNESCO risks misleading the very public it wishes to educate

Bearing in mind that the express aim of the international communication campaign to which this article is linked is to “make the general public and art lovers aware of the devastation of the history and identity of peoples wreaked by the illicit trade in cultural goods”, it seems reasonable to expect UNESCO to get its facts right and to correct mistakes when they are brought to its attention. Otherwise it risks misleading the very public it wishes to educate.
However, as was later reported, almost the entire advertising campaign devised by UNESCO surrounding this has been exposed as fraudulent.
If only this were an isolated incident, but unfortunately it’s all too commonplace within UNESCO itself, as the autumn 2020 editorial in The UNESCO Courier demonstrates.
Written by Ernesto Ottone Ramírez, Assistant Director-General for Culture, UNESCO, it states as fact (“The figures prove it”) that the attraction of illicit antiquities has never been greater, and attempts to justify this using the bogus claim that “The illicit flow of cultural goods is now believed to be the third-largest in terms of volume, after drugs and arms”.
As shown above, this is not true. (See the WCO Illicit Trade Reports 2017-2019), plus all the evidence on the IADAA website, all of which is independently verifiable through the links and references supplied.
Meanwhile Lazare Eloundou Assomo, Director of Culture and Emergencies for UNESCO’s Culture Sector, was interviewed on “Antiquités du sang”, quand pillage et pandémie font bon ménage! on Radio France Culture on October 24, during which (7 mins in) he claimed that estimates put the value of the global trade in illicit antiquities at around $64 billion. Bearing in mind that the world’s leading art market report, the Art Basel Report, estimated in 2019 that the value of the entire global art market was $67.4 billion, and the legitimate market in MENA antiquities is around 0.5% of this, it would be interesting to learn his source for the claim. During another radio interview, broadcast as part of the BBC World Services’ Business Daily special Zombie Statistics on February 20, 2019 (5 mins 20 secs in), Assomo was challenged over the inaccuracy of the figures UNESCO had been promoting since 2011. His response: “I don’t think we should enter into a debate about whether these figures are right or not right.” Whilst stating that “today we do not consider it any more important to concentrate on figures”, he claims that looting has increased, a claim immediately challenged by the interviewer, who says: “How do you know… you don’t have a global figure and you don’t support the 2011 [UNESCO report] figure?”
Dismissing the importance of figures is an odd position to take when you headline your campaign with an inaccurate but persuasive $10 billion figure.
Statistics guru Dr Tim Harford’s response to this on the same radio programme was that it is important to take statistics seriously because they are essential for understanding the world. “If people start treating them in a very cavalier way, that spoils it for everybody, because then people start not trusting statistics… Listing where a claim came from and how it was arrived at is a very important starting point.” It’s time UNESCO followed this advice.
If, as both Ramírez and Assomo keep claiming, the evidence is there and clear, why don’t they produce it, especially when directly challenged to do so by organisations like the BBC? The Ramírez article mentioned above was an ideal opportunity to set the record straight on this front, yet it did not do so. If the evidence is so clear, why the need to rely on bogus figures instead?
For an organisation like UNESCO, with its reputation and influence, to behave in the sort of cavalier way Dr Harford describes over such a sensitive subject is not only highly irresponsible and damaging, but also contemptuous of the public interest it pledges to serve.