HL Deb 23 April 1996 vol 571 cc1013-5

2.45 p.m.

Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn asked Her Majesty's Government:

What part they took in discussions leading to the Unidroit Convention on stolen and smuggled antiquities, why they have not signed the convention, and what measures they will take to restrain the sale in Great Britain of antiquities illegally excavated in and exported from other lands.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, the United Kingdom was represented at the meetings to discuss the draft convention. While the convention's aims are laudable, the Government have not signed because its scope is too wide. All members of the UK antiquities trade subscribe to a code of practice agreeing not to deal in illegally excavated or exported antiquities.

Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn

My Lords, first I thank my noble friend for that Answer. I accept that there are difficulties with the Unidroit Convention, but are the Government aware of the enormous scale of the looting of historic sites worldwide, and the colossal scale of the traffic in looted antiquities? Are the Government aware that London is a significant clearing house for this trade, whatever the code of practice may state? Will the Government look further into this and will my noble friend consider consulting the British Academy for its views on the matter?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, I am not sure whether the scale of looting to which my noble friend referred is so colossal, but the antiques unit of the Organised Crime Group at New Scotland Yard has recently seized antiquities from Egypt, China and Turkey. I understand the police have established that the Chinese and Egyptian antiquities were illegally exported and that it has been established that some were stolen. The Turkish antiquities are still under investigation.

With regard to my noble friend's supplementary question about the British Academy, the Government do not seek advice from the British Academy. Expert advice on archaeological matters is sought from the British Museum. However, if my noble friend can give me a good reason to consult the British Academy I shall pass on that information to people who are more knowledgeable on this subject than I.

Lord Strabolgi

My Lords, what is the length of the limitation period under the Unidroit Convention during which action can be taken to recover objects which have been allegedly stolen or exported? Is it true that it is as long as 50 years?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, as regards the limitation period, a most unsatisfactory situation arises with that part of the convention dealing with stolen property as the provisions affect ownership. Bona fide purchasers and their heirs will not be sure that they have good title possibly for 50 years, or for 75 years, or in certain cases, for ever.

The Earl of Lauderdale

My Lords, does the timescale involved affect the British decision to refuse to return the Elgin Marbles?

Baroness Trumpington

No, my Lords.

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, I sympathise with the Minister's noble friend's opposition to the illegal exporting of stolen treasures. Does she not agree that were we to sign the convention, it would be desirable to have in conjunction with it—as is the case in France, the United States and Canada—some anti-seizure legislation, because the risk under the convention is that a host country such as the UK, which hosts loans of art works from a second country, may have legal action taken against it to seize the works of art? To give specific examples, the Hermitage in Russia would be reluctant to loan its Impressionists to this country for fear of writs from the Germans. The Taiwanese would fear writs from the Chinese and the Israelis would fear writs from the Arabs. As a country, we must have protection from such action. Would the noble Baroness and the Government consider looking at the two together?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, I totally understand the noble Lord's question. I point out to him that we support the principles of a European convention to provide a standard for the protection of archaeological sites and artefacts throughout Europe. The UK ratified the first European convention; and signed the revised one. However, we are currently considering whether we ratify the present form.

The Earl of Gowrie

My Lords, will my noble friend remain her usual robust self and refuse to sign this particular convention? While I have considerable sympathy with the aims of my noble friend Lord Renfrew in respect of antiquities, is it not the case that the convention is drawn so widely as to define cultural objects pertaining to literature, art or science, thereby effectively forbidding the trading in, and therefore the collecting of, cultural objects of any kind?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, I accept what my noble friend said as he has a particular interest in this matter.

Lord Derwent

My Lords, as a past chairman of the London and Provincial Antique Dealers' Association, I thank the noble Baroness for her caution about the convention. The definition is so widely drawn that it is fairly clear that the legitimate trade will move into countries which have not signed the convention. Is the noble Baroness aware that under the terms of the convention as drafted no owners of a work of art or their successors in perpetuity could ever be sure that their ownership might not be challenged?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, the Government have not signed the Unidroit Convention. They have no intention of doing so. Therefore, the trade need have no fear of losing business to other countries.

Lord Clark of Kempston

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that more and more government papers come out with initials. We have UNESCO, IMF and various other initials. What does Unidroit stand for?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, it gives me great pleasure to tell your Lordships that the full title is the International Institute for the Harmonisation of Private Law. It was founded by Mussolini.

Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn

My Lords, while accepting fully the point made by my noble friend Lord Derwent and my noble friend Lord Gowrie, the ex-chairman of Sotheby's, will the Minister confirm that at present it is legal to import into this country antiquities which have been illegally excavated overseas and illegally exported from their host countries? Is not that at the root of the present difficult situation?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, my noble friend is right. It is not an offence to import objects which have been illegally exported from another country; but under an EC regulation the UK cannot issue an export licence for export to a destination outside the European Community for an object which has been illegally exported from another member state. Under an EC directive such an object may be requested back by the source state.

Baroness Rawlings

My Lords, how many other countries in the European Union have not signed the Unidroit Convention?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, quite a few.

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