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Greater efforts to arrest present day illicit trade

By BO LEUNG in London | CHINA DAILY | Updated: 2022-10-04 07:31
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Art and cultural heritage theft is not just a problem of a country's colonial past, as the battle against the illegal trafficking of ancient artifacts continues in the present day.

Emiline Smith, lecturer in art crime and criminology at the University of Glasgow, was involved earlier this year in recovering two artifacts stolen from Nepal, which were thought to have been lost forever.

The repatriated artifacts include a carved wooden Torana from the 16th century and a carved stone sculpture of a kneeling devotee with the Namaskar Mudra from the 18th century.

Both were illegally taken from temples in the Kathmandu Valley sometime in the late 1980s to 1990s.

These were handed over to Gyan Chandra Acharya, Nepal's ambassador to the United Kingdom, in March this year.

Both artifacts were traced and located through photographs of a London-based private antiquities dealer's website by the cultural repatriation activist Lost Arts of Nepal, which tweeted of their discovery in November last year.

The post was flagged by Smith who informed the authorities in Nepal and the Metropolitan Police.

"It is very important that cultural objects claimed by origin communities are repatriated as they do not morally and legally belong in the UK. Returning such objects to their rightful and legal owners contributes to restorative justice and allows continuation of the intangible heritage such as the stories, songs, festivals and rituals that may surround a cultural object," Smith told China Daily.

2020 marked the 50th anniversary of the 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, established by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO. The convention is an international treaty created to combat the illegal trade in cultural items.

Cultural property is deemed to be anything of scientific, historical, artistic, or religious significance. But the convention notes that every state can define its own cultural property, as long as the item is of importance to it.

As part of international peace-building efforts, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 2347 in 2017 on the unlawful destruction of cultural heritage and the link between the looting and smuggling of cultural objects and the financing of terrorism, which aims to strengthen international cooperation in order to deprive terrorists of funding and to protect cultural heritage and curb the illicit trade in historical artifacts.

The resolution encourages member states to take preventive steps through documentation and consolidation of their nationally owned cultural property in a network of "safe havens".

According to UNESCO, Europe is reportedly the largest exporter of art and antiquities, and the second-largest importer.

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