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Red Alert

8 October 2013

Responding to recent developments in the Syrian conflict and its devastating impact on the cultural heritage of the country, the International Council of Museums (ICOM) decided to publish a new ‘Emergency’ Red List last month. This document – a list of objects vulnerable to illicit trafficking – facilitates the work of the police force, customs officials and art dealers in preventing the illegal exportation of cultural property.

Developed with the support of the US Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, the Emergency Red List for Syria is the fruit of ICOM’s collaboration with Syrian and international experts. Working together to complete this urgent document as quickly as possible, they selected the types of objects that are particularly affected by or vulnerable to looting, and correspond best to demand in the antiquities market.

ICOM President Hans Martin Hinz officially presented the Emergency Red List of Syrian Cultural Objects at Risk on 25 September 2013 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The event was attended by Irina Bokova, Director General of UNESCO; Thomas P. Campbell, Director and CEO of the Metropolitan Museum; and Anne Richard, Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees, and Migration, as well as more than 100 representatives of the US State Department and UN Missions, law enforcement officials and heritage professionals. The museum has its own rich collection of Islamic art, testament to the scientific and cultural importance of preserving Syrian objects such as those included in the Red List.

Like the Red List that was created for Iraq in 2003, for Haiti after the earthquake and for Egypt during the Arab Spring, the Syrian Red List was drafted to protect a country’s vulnerable cultural heritage during a time of great instability. However, Red Lists are not only effective in times of conflict; they are also useful on the long term.

When, a couple of years ago, Scotland Yard requested that Heathrow Airport agents systematically use the Afghan Red List to control merchandise coming from the region, they were able to intercept and return thousands of artefacts to the Kabul Museum. There is no reason why the Syrian Red List could not be as effective, if it is used by all parties involved in the protection of cultural heritage.

The key to the long-term efficacy of Red Lists is that rather than simply providing an inventory of stolen objects, they list the categories of cultural goods that are legally protected from commercial trade. The objects featured in the list today are the same ones that will be in demand on the art market tomorrow, and the most effective way to avoid future need for restitution is to raise awareness and prevent the illicit traffic of cultural goods now.

A database of the 13 Red Lists that ICOM has published to date is available on the ICOM website. The next Red List, which will focus on West Africa with a special emergency section on Mali, is already in progress. A Red List for Libya will soon be in preparation as well. They will both be published next year.

France Desmarais is the Director of Programmes and Development at the International Council of Museums in Paris, France.

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