Our Art & Cultural Property Practice Group

Cultural Property Protection & Cultural Property Law

The 1899 and 1907 Hague Conventions were the first international agreements to call for the protection of cultural property. A strengthened Hague Convention was then promulgated in 1954: Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict. This Convention declared antiquities and other works of cultural property to be the collective heritage of mankind as a whole. This declaration however served to strengthen the notion, that cultural property belonged to all, and supported nations perception that they had just as much right to a given artefact as its country of origin.

One must distinguish between the nations who drafted the agreement as they were primarily known as market nations nations that imported cultural property, as opposed to source nations who had their cultural property removed. Since the drafting of the Convention was in the hands of the market nations, source nations were displeased with the 1954 Convention and, by 1970, had gained enough influence in the United Nations to push for a new agreement: the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Transport, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property.

The 1970 UNESCO Convention has succeeded in raising international awareness of the illicit cultural property trade and provided some guidance in efforts to combat the trade. Its most significant contribution was the establishment of the year 1970 as the crucial date in resolving the majority of cultural property disputes. Thus the Convention categorises between pre-1970 and post-1970 acquired art pieces. Art pieces acquired prior to 1970 do not fall under the auspices of the Convention and thus to retain such an object, a source country bears the burden of proving the item was looted; since museums are not required to demonstrate that it was acquired legally.

The year 2010 marks the 40th anniversary of the UNESCO Convention, with signatories now amounting to over 110 states; the Convention remains the most important international agreement on the subject of cultural property.