Lyndel Prott, Honorary Prof. of International Heritage Law at the University of Queensland has authored a timely Op-Ed for the Conversation. In it she argues the 1970 UNESCO Convention has a role to play in impeding the flow of illicit art. But wonders about its impact on the recent spate of illicit material revealed in Australian Museums:
In September the Australian Prime Minister personally returned a 900-year-old bronze Dancing Shiva (Shiva Nataraja) to the Prime Minister of India which had been bought by the National Gallery of Australia (NGA) and was subsequently found to have been stolen from a temple in southern India.
In a country which has been a party to the Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property – 1970 since 1989, how did the AGSA, the NGA and the AGNSW find themselves in such egregious situations?
Despite the passage of the Protection of Movable Cultural Heritage Act 1986 which implements for Australia the provisions of the 1970 Convention, the holding institutions have not undertaken the effort that they should have over the last 25 years.
She goes on to explain why nations like Australia have had difficulty avoiding the temptation of beautiful but illicit artworks, and looks ahead to the future:
It has been more difficult for “younger” countries, such as Australia, to put together an outstanding collection. It is also difficult for countries who feel that their own cultural achievements are held elsewhere and are unable to retrieve them to use them for their own purposes, including the education of their own artists and future generations.
This conundrum has led many museums directors not to pursue the trail of provenance too thoroughly. The result can be very unfortunate – the return of the Shiva to India exemplifies this only too well.
Efforts to see that the 1986 Act is being complied with have been much more active under some federal governments than others. The present government left the National Cultural Heritage Committee without a chairman and with some vacant seats for many months, so it was effectively inoperative.
In 2009 there was a public consultation about the working of the Act.
Recommendations were made but no further action has been taken on them. The United Kingdom has been working on guidance for museums and art galleries on many difficult issues such as the treatment and return of human remains, and the return of spoliated goods.
Recently Australia produced the Australian Best Practice Guide to Collecting Cultural Material. In June this year a draft was circulated for further comment. But the final version of the guide is less compelling than the original draft.
Current museum directors in Australia now have two challenges: to verify a good provenance of objects already acquired and to negotiate with culturally rich countries for loans (long-term and short) to broaden appreciation of exotic cultures in return for support for their museums and culture.