An Examination into the Illegal Trade of Cultural Properties

문화재(文化財)의 국제적 불법 거래(不法 去來)에 관한 고찰

  • 조부근 (문화관광부 문화비젼추진연구단)
  • Published : 2004.12.20


International circulation of cultural assets involves numerous countries thereby making an approach based on international law essential to resolving this problem. Since the end of the $2^{nd}$ World War, as the value of cultural assets evolved from material value to moral and ethical values, with emphasis on establishing national identities, newly independent nations and former colonial states took issue with ownership of cultural assets which led to the need for international cooperation and statutory provisions for the return of cultural assets. UNESCO's 1954 "Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict" as preparatory measures for the protection of cultural assets, the 1970 "Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property" to regulate transfer of cultural assets, and the 1995 "Unidroit Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects" which required the return of illegally acquired cultural property are examples of international agreements established on illegal transfers of cultural assets. In addition, the UN agency UNESCO established the Division of Cultural Heritage to oversee cultural assets related matters, and the UN since its 1973 resolution 3187, has continued to demonstrate interest in protection of cultural assets. The resolution 3187 affirms the return of cultural assets to the country of origin, advises on preventing illegal transfers of works of art and cultural assets, advises cataloguing cultural assets within the respective countries and, conclusively, recommends becoming a member of UNESCO, composing a forum for international cooperation. Differences in defining cultural assets pose a limitation on international agreements. While the 1954 Convention states that cultural assets are not limited to movable property and includes immovable property, the 1970 Convention's objective of 'Prohibiting and preventing the illicit import, export and transfer of ownership of cultural property' effectively limits the subject to tangible movable cultural property. The 1995 Convention also has tangible movable cultural property as its subject. On this point, the two conventions demonstrate distinction from the 1954 Convention and the 1972 Convention that focuses on immovable cultural property and natural property. The disparity in defining cultural property is due to the object and purpose of the convention and does not reflect an inherent divergence. In the case of Korea, beginning with the 1866 French invasion, 36 years of Japanese colonial rule, military rule and period of economic development caused outflow of numerous cultural assets to foreign countries. Of course, it is neither possible nor necessary to have all of these cultural properties returned, but among those that have significant value in establishing cultural and historical identity or those that have been taken symbolically as a demonstration of occupational rule can cause issues in their return. In these cases, the 1954 Convention and the ratification of the first legislation must be actively considered. In the return of cultural property, if the illicit acquisition is the core issue, it is a simple matter of following the international accords, while if it rises to the level of diplomatic discussions, it will become a political issue. In that case, the country requesting the return must convince the counterpart country. Realizing a response to the earnest need for preventing illicit trading of cultural assets will require extensive national and civic societal efforts in the East Asian area to overcome its current deficiencies. The most effective way to prevent illicit trading of cultural property is rapid circulation of information between Interpol member countries, which will require development of an internet based communication system as well as more effective deployment of legislation to prevent trading of illicitly acquired cultural property, subscription to international conventions and cataloguing collections.