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News, ATG No 2471.

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Unesco is reported as saying that it discussed the use of all images and texts “of the current campaign” with all institutions concerned. Is the “current campaign” the final version of what appeared, or does it include the campaigns exposed as fake? Did those institutions agree to the adoption of fabricated text to mislead the public?

Unesco’s explanation also avoids the question of how and why:

– The Met was not consulted over the use of its images;

– very specific claims were made about each piece that turned out to be fabricated; and

– Unesco made false claims directly accusing the art market of being complicit in criminal activity involving these pieces.

Unesco had already stated that the items pictured in the second version of the campaign were all looted, when two of the three items pictured had not been.

It also claims to be acting in the public interest, yet has been shown to be using public money to mislead the general public in a less than transparent way.

It continues to promote the figure of $10bn as the annual value of illicit trade in cultural property globally when it has been advised that its source for this does not claim that at all – and is evasive when challenged over this figure.

This approach has been adopted for some time. When challenged about its cavalier approach to statistics and the truth, Unesco claims that the figures don’t matter and the evidence of the extent of looting and trafficking is all there to see.*

Freely available evidence

If so, why continue to quote bogus figures to make a point, and why not publish such freely available evidence rather than risking the exposure of two fraudulent campaigns in a row?

If, as Unesco concludes in your report, it “would prefer to discuss the real problem – art trafficking and how to tackle it effectively”, it surely must understand that accuracy – facts and figures – matters, and that continuing to present a false picture of what is going on, even when challenged, is self-defeating as well as damaging to effective policy and its credibility in tackling crime.

By attempting to shame private collectors and the art market they lose the goodwill of the very people they should be working in partnership with.

At the recent cultural heritage conference hosted by Latvia, where Unesco director Lazare Eloundou Assomo told the audience that member states had applauded the campaign, he also said that he wanted to make a clear distinction between the legitimate art market and criminals. And yet by Unesco stating on its website that: “Unesco’s intention was to alert the public by depicting objects of high cultural value, which should be on display in museums, presented in luxurious private interiors…”, it implies Unesco is hostile to there being an art market and private collectors.

The priorities

As associations such as ours have argued for years now, prioritising Unesco’s objectives as set out in the 1970 convention, especially protecting vulnerable sites, under its Article 5 obligations, has the potential to improve matters considerably.

With all of this and more, it is no surprise that Our World Heritage (ourworldheritage.org), a new non-governmental organisation of hugely experienced experts in this field, has just set up in direct competition because, as its spokesman stated, the protection of vulnerable sites had now become of “secondary interest” to Unesco.

The art trade has still not had a proper explanation or apology from Unesco about how this advertising campaign came to be used to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Convention. This evasion and lack of self-awareness does not bode well for the future.

Joanna van der Lande

Chairman

Antiquities Dealers’ Association

* BBC World Service, Business Daily Zombie Statistics on February 20, 2019. During this interview, Lazare Eloundou Assomo was challenged over the inaccuracy of the figures Unesco had been promoting since 2011. (See https://bbc.in/2Jj9yqg 5 mins 20 secs in). His response: “I don’t think we should enter into a debate about whether these figures are right or not right.” While stating that “today we do not consider it any more important to concentrate on figures”, he claims that looting has increased, a claim immediately challenged by the interviewer, who says: “How do you know… you don’t have a global figure and you don’t support the 2011 [Unecso report] figure?”