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.