Enjoy unlimited access: just £1 for 12 weeks

Subscribe now

At the same time, the British Government have approached the trade to see what they are doing to prevent any illegal transactions, but, as British Art Market Federation chairman Anthony Browne points out, the key tool in preventing crime in this field would be the national database for stolen art authorised by the Government nearly three years ago.

Mr Browne was one of the expert witnesses consulted by the Commons culture, media and sport select committee in early 2000 when they investigated what could be done about the return and illicit trade in cultural property. Along with James Ede and Joanna van der Lande of the Antiquities Dealers Association (ADA), as well as a host of other experts, the all-party committee’s primary recommendation was that the Government should establish a national database of stolen cultural property. This advice was supported by a panel of experts, again including Mr Browne and Mr Ede, set up to advise the then Arts Minister Alan Howarth on the same subject. The panel reported back in November 2000 and, in January 2001, the Minister announced his enthusiasm for the plan amongst other measures.

However, even then, the Antiques Trade Gazette reported: “Funding could be the one stumbling block”, as the Minister announced that any new measures would have to be funded by Government departments out of “existing resources”.

Other issues included contractual difficulties over the control of the mooted database, but any hope of diverting Home Office or Scotland Yard funds into the project in the short term vanished after resources were redirected into fighting terrorism after September 11, 2001.

Now, tackling the problem of trade in stolen art is back at the top of the agenda once more and, as all parties – politicians, trade organisations, academics and museum representatives – agreed in 2000, a database, which the trade could use to check if items they were considering were listed, should
be the way ahead. Mr Browne believes that by forging ahead with the database, the Government could build considerably on their achievements so far in encouraging more transparency in transactions.

Meanwhile, the ADA, who have been monitoring the situation in Iraq for some time, have issued a statement saying that their members “will under no circumstances acquire antiquities stolen from Iraq and will make every effort to ensure such works of art are eventually returned to their proper home”. The ADA want UNESCO, who oversee the return of stolen art to the rightful owners, and Western governments to establish an international database of stolen art as quickly as possible.

A similar appeal has come from CINOA, the International Confederation of Art and Antique Dealers, who have also stressed the importance of the trade exercising extra caution over due diligence and the checking of provenance in transactions, especially when it comes to Mesopotamian artefacts.

However, one trade source told the Gazette that dealing in any such objects that did not have a solid written provenance placing them outside Iraq before the US invasion simply would not happen.

“It’s easy to spot the well-known important pieces, but the things that are more likely to be presented to the trade will be the smaller items that are more difficult to trace back,” he said. “That effectively means a moratorium on any Mesopotamian pieces that weren’t in circulation before the war. No one wants to find themselves in possession of a stolen work.”