Unesco using ‘bogus’ figures to inflate the cost of stolen art to $10bn, say dealers
28 Dec 2020

The figures are shocking – the trade in illegal art is worth $10billion and after drugs and arms it makes up the world’s third largest black market.

But the problem with claims by Unesco, art dealers say, is that they are simply not true.

It has led to a row between the trade and the UN’s cultural agency, whose mission is to “build peace through international cooperation”.

Cinoa, the international federation of antique and art dealers, says in an open letter that the “bogus data” and “unjustified harassment” is damaging the market, which are already suffocating under regulation and the pressures caused by a global pandemic.

Erika Bochereau, Cinoa Director General told the Telegraph: “It is a question of association, when people see an antiquity or ancient piece of art they automatically assume the trade is linked to criminal groups.

“It hurts the reputation that we rely on, who wants to buy from somebody that they think is dishonest?”

“Reliable dealers won’t touch anything that is even questionable in terms of provenance, because it is toxic.”

But Unesco stands by the figures, insisting they are based on sound evidence from a number of studies which are themselves based on official information, including from the FBI.

“Any figures on trafficking are an estimation, it is very difficult to put a number on something that is by definition illicit and under the radar,” a spokesman said.

“In doing so Unesco uses the utmost caution, we base it on very solid ground and we are confident in our estimation.  It is extremely prudent.”

Earlier this year Unesco launched its “the real price of art”  campaign to mark the 50th anniversary of their Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property.

It highlighted the “devastation of the history and identity of peoples wreaked by the illicit trade in cultural goods, which is estimated to be worth nearly $10 billion each year” and claimed that art is the world’s third biggest black market.

The figure would mean that 15 percent of the $64 billion a year market was based on criminal trade. It is believed to be the first time that an international organisation of such standing has endorsed the $10bn figure, which has been disputed by a number of studies.

A spokesman explained that a 2011 study, among others, put the price of the illicit market at $6 to $8bn and since then there has been a “surge in trafficking”, fuelled by wars in Iraq and Syria and facilitated by online market places.

In another piece Unesco claimed that “increasingly, the mafia and terrorist organizations are involved in the illicit trafficking trade to launder money or finance their activities”.

The campaign included mock-ups of priceless pieces of stolen art in people’s living rooms, but Unesco was forced to pull half the images and express their “regret” as they were items legitimately owned and on public display in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art (MET).

A Unesco spokesman told the Art Newspaper in November they had removed the images to avoid any misunderstanding.

Matthieu Gueval said: ““We did not want to document any specific object (This mask, This funerary portrait), but rather highlight a category of objects that are extremely vulnerable to looting.”

In an open letter to Unesco Director General Audrey Azoulay, Cinoa president Clinton Howell warns that to cite “inflated and unfounded claims regarding the size of the illicit trade” damages both the market and Unesco’s credibility.

Mr Howell also cites a number of studies on the size of the problem, including the September 2020 World Customs Organisation Illicit Trade Report which shows that cultural property made up just 0.2 per cent of the total seizures, compared to 30 percent for drugs.

Mr Howell writes: “Transparency and provenance are words on everyone’s lips and rightly… Ethical practice is not an abstract concept, but an essential business tool these days for a successful future of the art market.”

Among dealers they joke that they have to be detectives and not only do the claims to the contrary damage  business, Ms Bochereau said, but from a respected UN authority they influence legislators around the world to introduce more rules and regulations which are stifling trade.

By Hayley Dixon, The Telegraph, 27 December 2020

Read more at The Telegraph

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