HL Deb 18 February 1997 vol 578 cc553-4

3.2 p.m.

Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether the reputation of London as an international art market of probity may be damaged by evidence of the public sale of looted antiquities smuggled from their country of origin, and whether they will take steps to monitor the scale of this illicit trade in the United Kingdom.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of National Heritage (Lord Inglewood)

My Lords, the Government believe that London's standing in the international art market should survive the recent allegations. We believe the trade should monitor its own activities, regulate itself and take appropriate steps against those who do not abide by its code of practice. Doing this effectively ensures its reputation. In addition, where the criminal law has been broken sanctions are available and when international instruments are broken appropriate steps will be taken in accordance with them.

Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply. Does he recall the words in the Written Answer that he gave yesterday, in which he observed, It is not an offence to import into this country antiquities which have been illegally excavated in and exported from their countries of origin"?—[Official Report, 17/2/97; col. WA 34.] Is my noble friend entirely happy with that circumstance? Does he feel that it is to the credit of London as an international art market that it should become the clearing-house for looted antiquities from India, Turkey, west Africa and Europe? Does he not feel that his Answer perhaps verges on the complacent?

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, we believe that the London art market is important to this country and wish to maintain its position. Perhaps the greatest reason for this country's reputation is the fact that it is a place where fair and proper dealing has been the basis of the trade. The most effective way to maintain that in the future is through proper self-regulation. That is the most effective way to deal with the mischiefs about which everyone is concerned. Experience in other countries where it is illegal to do all kinds of things with antiquities has not stopped such trade taking place. Therefore we believe the right way to approach the matter is through a system under which rigorous action is taken when the self-regulating code is broken.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the international art market always has been a bit of a posh racket? Is he further aware that the trade in this country is probably cleaner than in most others, and that the recent exposure which took place will perhaps make people a little more aware of what was going on and help those of us who want to, to clean it up a little more easily than has hitherto been possible?

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, as the noble Lord says, the response of the art market in the face of an abuse is what will determine whether or not its reputation for probity survives. In the context of the recent allegations, it is relevant to note that Sotheby's, which was implicated, took steps straight away to endeavour to put matters right.

The Earl of Perth

My Lords, will the Minister also consider the other side of the coin; namely, keeping a watch on antiquities that may be leaving this country—more especially until the Treasure Bill and the code of practice become operative? Will the Minister tell the House when that might happen?

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, we share the noble Earl's desire to see the Treasure Act in operation as soon as is reasonably possible. As we explained, our aim is that it should come into effect this September. The consultation period on the draft code closed only last Friday. We have received over 150 responses, some of which are very detailed. We shall need to take full account of those when revising the draft code. We believe it is important to get it right. Nonetheless, we understand the noble Earl's concern that the code should be approved by Parliament before the election. While, as he will appreciate, we can give no guarantees, I assure him that we are doing our best to achieve that.

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, following the noble Earl's question, will the Minister ensure that the code is tabled as soon as possible in order to help curb any illegal trade in treasures found in this country? Will he bear in mind that, when he does so, he will have the full support of this side of the House?

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord for his continuing support for the Bill and the measures proposed under it. As I explained, we shall endeavour to bring forward the code as soon as we responsibly can.

Baroness Rawlings

My Lords, does the Minister agree that it is the newly acquired antiquities in circulation about which we should be worried, not the old ones? What practical steps are being taken in the countries from where they are pillaged? Do those countries provide any help to us to stop that trade?

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, my noble friend is right. Items that are being illegally exported and pillaged are our principal concern now. The difficulties that other countries have are self-evident. We are essentially in the position of trying to organise our market to make sure that it is arranged most effectively in the interests of the market-place and to ensure that those items that come into the hands of dealers in this country, when they are identified as having been illegally exported from their country of origin or looted from sites, are returned, if they are of appropriate quality, to the countries of origin.