Antiquity Legislation in the UK

Items Found in the UK

In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, all finders of gold and silver objects, as well as groups of coins from the same finds dating to over 300 years old, have a legal obligation to report such items under the Treasure Act 1996. Prehistoric base-metal collections found after 1st January 2003 also qualify as Treasure.

In Scotland there is a legal obligation to report all archaeological objects under Treasure Trove (see below). All objects belong to the Crown, unless disclaimed.

How Treasure is Defined by UK Law

  1. Any metallic object, other than a coin, provided that at least 10 per cent by weight of metal is gold or silver and that it is at least 300 years old when found. If the object is of prehistoric date it will be Treasure provided any part of it is precious metal.
  2. Any group of two or more metallic objects of any composition of prehistoric date that come from the same find (see below)
  3. Two or more coins from the same find provided they are at least 300 years old when found and are composed of at least 10 per cent gold or silver (but if the coins contain less than 10 per cent of gold or silver there must be at least 10 of them). Only the following groups of coins will normally be regarded as coming from the same find:
    1. hoards that have been deliberately hidden
    2. smaller groups of coins, such as the contents of purses, that may been dropped or lost, and
    3. votive or ritual deposits.
  4. Any object, whatever it is made of, that is found in the same place as, or had previously been together with, another object that is Treasure.
  5. Any object that would previously have been Treasure Trove, but does not fall within the specific categories given above. Only objects that are less than 300 years old, that are made substantially of gold or silver, that have been deliberately hidden with the intention of recovery and whose owners or heirs are unknown will come into this category.

Note: An object or coin is part of the “same find” as another object or coin, if it is found in the same place as, or had previously been together with, the other object. Finds may have become scattered since they were originally deposited in the ground.

All finds of gold or silver found before 24 September 1997 should have been reported as Treasure Trove. All Treasure finds found after that date should have been reported under the Treasure Act 1996.

In Scotland there is a legal obligation to report all archaeological finds, no matter when they were found. Likewise in Northern Ireland there is the legal requirement to report all archaeological finds found after 1926

For more information on Treasure, the process and the Portable Antiquities Scheme, please visit: The Treasure Act

Items Found Abroad

Some countries prohibit the trading of antiquities, such as Greece, Turkey and Egypt. Others have tight restrictions on export, such as Italy. Some countries, like the UK,  have licensing systems for domestically found archaeological objects and allow the sale of artefacts that do not fall into the category of treasure, or have been disclaimed as treasure through the official Treasure Valuation process.

Every country will preserve their most important cultural objects for public ownership, exhibiting them most often in museums and galleries. For specific guidelines on exporting and importing from another country, other than the UK, please visit each countries government website.

The Fight Against Illicit Antiquities

Various Conventions and legal procedures exist to fight against the trade of illicit antiquities. As well as abiding by the rules of such conventions, dealers should practise their own due diligence. Buying antiquities from a reputable source, such as a dealer who is a member of an antiquity trade association, is necessary and will provide security and trust.

The UNESCO 1970 Convention

The UNESCO 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property is an international treaty.

It is the first international treaty dedicated to the fight against illicit trafficking of cultural property. It was adopted at the 16th General Conference of UNESCO on 14 November 1970 in Paris and came into force on 24 April 1972. As of September 2015, 129 states are parties to the treaty.

The treaty was created to protect Cultural Property, which is defined in Article 1 of the Convention[7], as property which, on religious or secular grounds, is specifically designated by each State as being of importance for archaeology, prehistory, history, literature, art or science and which belongs to various categories. These include:

  •   products of archaeological excavations (including regular and clandestine) or of archaeological discoveries;
  •   elements of artistic or historical monuments or archaeological sites which have been dismembered;
  •   antiquities more than one hundred years old, such as inscriptions, coins and engraved seals;

Non-retroactivity is its feature: the Convention is only applicable to cultural objects stolen or illicitly exported from one State Party to another State Party after the date of entry into force of the Convention for both States concerned.

State parties must (among other duties stated): promote museums, libraries, archives, establish national inventories, encourage adoption of codes of conduct for dealers in cultural property, implement educational programmes to develop respect for cultural heritage, prohibit the export of cultural property unless, it is accompanied by an export certificate, emergency import bans may be adopted when the cultural heritage of a State party is seriously endangered by intense looting of archaeological and ethnological artefacts (Afghanistan, Iraq, etc.).

The UNIDROIT 1995 Convention

The UNIDROIT Convention on Stolen or  Illegally Exported Cultural Objects was a convention adopted by Diplomatic Conference in Rome on 24 June 1995. Drafted at UNESCO’s request to develop a uniform minimum body of private law rules for the international art trade to complement the public law provisions of the 1970 UNESCO Convention.

Restitution of stolen cultural objects (art. 3 and 4) and return of illegally exported cultural objects (art.5 to 7) were key principles  of the Convention. It emphasised that the provision of any remedies needed to come into effect, including the possibility of compensation and due diligence to be undertaken. This Convention will not by itself provide a solution to the problems raised by illicit trade, but that it initiates a process that will enhance international cultural co-operation and maintain a proper role for legal trading and inter-State agreements for cultural exchanges.

 Other Legal Procedures Against Illicit Traffic in Cultural Property

Other legal procedures exist to fight against the traffic of cultural property. These include:

  1. Protocol to the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict – concerning the return of items taken from an area where an armed conflict is taking place.
  2. European Union Directive 93/7 – applicable among the 27 Member States of the EU, it provides a specific procedure for the return of illegally removed cultural property.
  3. Commonwealth Scheme – establishes a procedure for the return of stolen or illicitly exported objects within the Commonwealth; model legislation has been drafted which the 54 Commonwealth Member States may use as a basis for a national legislation.

The Trade of Syrian Antiquities

Syria – Antiquities Law – Legislative Decree No. 222 of 1963, with its amendments

The trade of Syrian Antiquities is regulated in writing by a 29 page decree (as of the year 2000), first formulated in 1963. It defines Syrian Antiquitites as;

“…movable and immovable properties which were built, manufactured, produced, written or drawn by humankind, and date back to at least two hundred Christian years or two hundred and six Hejira years. The Antiquities Higher Commission, by a ministerial Decree, is entitled to include all movable and immovable properties belonging to a later date and consider them as antiquities once these monuments are proven to be of a historical, artistic or national characteristic.”

In regards to the trade of antiquities it states that;

“Organisations and individuals might collect and keep movable antiquities provided they are shown to antiquities authorities to register the important pieces. Collectors of registered antiquities are responsible for preserving them and not making any changes to them.”

“Ownership of registered movable antiquities might be transferred upon the prior agreement with antiquities authorities.”

For further details and to read the whole decree – please click here. Please note that this decree will open as a PDF document.

Further legislation in Article 11c of Council Regulation (EU) No 36/2012 (the Regulation) reads:

“It shall be prohibited to import, export, transfer, or provide brokering services related to the import, export or transfer of, Syrian cultural property goods and other goods of archaeological, historical, cultural, rare scientific or religious importance, including those listed in Annex XI, where there are reasonable grounds to suspect that the goods have been removed from Syria without the consent of their legitimate owner or have been removed in breach of Syrian law or international law, in particular if the goods form an integral part of either the public collections listed in the inventories of the conservation collections of Syrian museums, archives or libraries, or the inventories of Syrian religious institutions.”

  • The prohibition in paragraph 1 shall not apply if it is demonstrated that:
  1. the goods were exported from Syria prior to 9 May 2011; or
  2. the goods are being safely returned to their legitimate owners in Syria.

The Trade of Iraqi Antiquities

Iraq – Law no. 55 regarding Antiquities and Heritage of Iraq, 2002

Antiquities are defined as “movable and immovable property which has been built, made, carved, produced, written or painted by man, those age of which is not less than 200 years, as well as human and animal skeletons and plant remains (…) located in the territory of Iraq, unless registered as private property with the State Board of Antiquities, shall be considered the property of the State.”

Discovering, taking, purchasing or receiving as a gift any antiquity or heritage material that originated in Iraq, without promptly notifying and registering the object with the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage, is a violation of Law Number 55. Under this law, no one is allowed by excavate, dig for, discover or take any antiquity or heritage material without a written permit from the Iraq State Board of Antiquities and Heritage. Likewise, no one is allowed to remove or transport any antiquity or heritage material from the territory of Iraq without a permit from the same body.

For further details and to read the whole decree – please click here. Please note that this decree will open as a PDF document.

Due Diligence

When purchasing an antiquity it is vital that a buyer purchases from a reputable source. Dealers and other trading organisations should acquire and borrow items only if they are legally and ethically sound. They should reject an item if there is any suspicion about it, or about the circumstances surrounding it, after undertaking due diligence. Documentary evidence, or if that is unavailable an affidavit, is necessary to prove the ethical status of a major item.

Due diligence requires a dealer to establish the facts of a case before deciding a course of action, particularly in identifying the source and history of an item offered for acquisition or use before acquiring it. In other words, the due diligence implies that all the necessary verifications regarding the legal provenance of a cultural object has been made, i.e. its full history and ownership from the time of its discovery or creation to the present day, through which authenticity and ownership are determined.

The issue of provenance is one of the most important concepts when addressing the mobility of collections and the transfer of ownership of cultural property, due diligence is therefore one of the best practices for preventing the illicit trade of cultural objects.

Due diligence is one of the core concepts of the UNIDROIT 1995 Convention (explained above). It is clearly mentioned in article 4.1 as a prerequisite for the payment of reasonable and fair compensation in the case of the return of a stolen cultural object.

It is also indirectly mentioned in the UNESCO 1970 Convention (explained above), where we can find requirement for State Parties to introduce export certificates and to prohibit the exportation of cultural property unless accompanied by the above-mentioned certificate (article 6).

A number of international codes of ethics provide provisions on due diligence, with varying levels of detail:

  1. The ICOM Code of Ethics for Museums
  2. The UNESCO International Code of Ethics for Dealers in Cultural Property
  3. The AIAD Code of Conduct
  4. The Rules of the IADAA,
  5. CINOA Code of Ethics. We are members of CINOA – Confédération Internationale des Négociants en Oeuvres d’Art, a non-profit international federation of dealers association.
  6. ILAB Code of Ethics.

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