Apollo Magazine

What happens if you unwittingly buy a looted artefact?

We ask a legal expert for their advice to concerned collectors

Alabaster ‘Eye Idols’ (3200 BC) Eye Temple (Tell Brak, Syria) from ICOM's Emergency Red List of Syrian Cultural Objects at Risk © Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums, Damascus. Source: www.icom.museum

The looting of archaeological sites and museums in the Middle East has been in the spotlight this year, with several reports suggesting that stolen items have been smuggled to Europe in large numbers. How might this situation impact private collectors, and what should they do if it emerges that an object in their possession is a looted artefact? We asked solicitor Becky Shaw, from the London-based law firm Boodle Hatfield to explain.

Is it possible to buy a looted artefact unwittingly?

Coins, jewellery, mosaics, glassware, vases, figurines and other artefacts are reportedly being excavated and smuggled out of Iraq and Syria on an ‘industrial’ scale, to be sold online or in Western dealerships.

Innocent buyers may unwittingly purchase these items online or in dealerships, where they may be displayed amongst legitimate items. Convincing descriptions may be constructed about the style or origins of the items, together with vague but plausible explanations about their provenance. This is not to imply wrongdoing on behalf of the dealers, who may themselves have been convinced by a fabricated account.

What should a collector do if they suspect they own a looted item?

If a buyer is concerned that he may have acquired a looted item, there are various lists he can check. The International Council of Museums has created a ‘red list’ of cultural artefacts most at risk of theft, which includes separate lists for Iraq and Syria, as well as other countries. Interpol, the FBI, and private organisations such as The Art Loss Register, Art Recovery International and Art Claim also maintain databases of looted and stolen art. However these lists are not definitive and may not be up to date with items recently looted, especially given the reported scale on which it is happening.

What are the legal implications for the buyer?

If it does transpire that an item is looted, there are legal implications for the buyer under both criminal and civil law.

What are the implications under criminal law?

In terms of the criminal law, there are potential implications under three different pieces of legislation:

The first two offences share a requirement for ‘dishonesty’, which is judged according to both objective and subjective standards. So if the buyer’s acquisition of the item was not dishonest according to the ordinary standards of reasonable and honest people, and/or the buyer did not realise that reasonable and honest people would regard what he did as dishonest, then the buyer will not be guilty of these offences.

A recent article reported that Scotland Yard’s specialist Art and Antiques Unit currently has three live investigations into stolen antiquities from Syria, and that in two of these cases, restrictions have been placed on the items in question. There have been no arrests to date.

And civil law?

There are also implications for the buyer under civil law. The buyer may be liable for conversion, which is a type of wrongful interference. Conversion occurs when a person interferes with the personal property of another, so as to amount (in the eyes of the law) to appropriating the property for himself. If the buyer acquires an item that was taken by somebody not entitled to do so, then he could be liable for conversion. The owner of the item could bring a claim for damages or restitution (to recover the item).

In 2007, the Government of Iran issued Court proceedings to recover 18 carved chlorite bowls, jars and cups which were almost 5,000 years old, and which had been removed from Iran following unlicenced and unlawful excavations. Iran claimed that the items formed part of its national heritage. The defendant was Barakat gallery, an international art dealer based in London, which traded in ancient art and antiquities from around the world, who claimed to have purchased the items in Europe under laws which gave it good title. Preliminary issues were tried as to whether Iran had sufficient ownership in the items in the jurisdiction to be entitled to pursue its claim to recover the items. Reversing the first instance decision, the Court of Appeal held that the English Court should recognise Iran’s entitlement to recover the items, which was based on Iranian national law. The Court recognised that there was international recognition that states should assist one another to prevent the unlawful removal of cultural objects.

However over time a bona fide purchaser of looted or stolen goods can acquire good title. If the buyer purchased the item in good faith from a previous bona fide purchaser and more than six years has passed since the seller’s purchase then he will acquire good title to the item.

Should the seller be reported? Can the buyer get his money back?

If the buyer discovers he has unwittingly purchased a looted item, his first step should be to notify the seller. If the buyer bought the item from a dealer then there may be a sale contract, or terms and conditions, which may make provisions to cover the scenario, and allow him to return and refund the item. Alternatively, as a matter of goodwill the dealer may agree to refund the item and take the matter up with the person from whom he acquired it. If the buyer acquired the item online, then the website should provide a procedure for items to be returned.

If the seller is unwilling to refund the item, for higher value items the buyer may consider seeking legal advice, as he may have a claim against the seller if the latter has not carried out satisfactory due diligence to verify the origins and provenance of the item. However for lower value items, the buyer may have to suffer the loss of his investment on the item, which will be unsaleable.

The buyer may also consider notifying the police, UNESCO, or the International Council of Museums.

How can one prevent this happening again?

Buyers should take steps to before acquiring any item which could potentially have been looted, or which could originate from high-risk areas. The higher the value of the item, the more rigorous a buyer should be. A secure and fully documented provenance and full explanation about the origins of the item is absolutely critical and buyers should not accept vague explanations or undocumented accounts. A lack of paperwork, particularly for high value items, should ring alarm bells.

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