Role of Museums in the Fight Against Illicit Trafficking – Levent Tökün

In this post we are excited to share with you, our reader, the speech of Levent Tökün made in the first ESACH (European Students’ Association for Cultural Heritage) Talks entitled Museums & Art.

Levent Tökün obtained his BA degree in Archaeology and History of Art from Koç Üniversitesi, where he also spent a semester at Trinity College Dublin, as an exchange student, and later completed his dual MA degree in World Heritage Studies at BTU Cottbus-Senftenberg & in Cultural Heritage at Deakin University. For the MA thesis, he researched the issue of return of illicitly trafficked cultural property both to and from Turkey regarding policy consistency and goodwill. 

Role of Museums in the Fight Against Illicit Trafficking

written by Levent Tökün

Cultural properties have always been on the move from one location to another by various actors for different reasons. From extreme poverty to forced sales, trade to gifts, the reasons for trafficking vary from case to case, yet the main objective is often to supply goods to the excessive demand of the market for financial gain or sometimes even to gain prestige and attract more visitors. This demand for arts and antiques is not a new phenomenon in both licit and illicit forms. However, in today’s intensive global art trade, distinguishing licit and illicit trafficking is quite challenging due to the ever-changing and complex dynamics of the market structure in which the traffic is predominantly from East to West.

Museums have always been the major players of the market who are in constant demand of fine objects to fascinate visitors, but more importantly to attract funds that would finance new acquisitions besides educational roles. Accordingly, as the ICOM Code of Ethics clearly states that museums must act in a way to ensure safe acquisitions and deaccessioning of any object which is offered to or demanded from the museum (ICOM, 2017, Article 2[3]). Yet, we still see museums with foreign artifacts/biofacts that have no clear provenance records/documentation. For example, approximately 80% of Etruscan and Roman antiquities have an illicit origin, or 31% of the Apulian posts are undocumented and only 5.5% were lawfully excavated reported by UNESCO itself (UNESCO, 2013, p. 2).

Although the problem is clear, by acquiring illicitly trafficked cultural property, museums still fuel the market as it is obvious in the recent cases of “Benin Bronzes” at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston in 2012, an Etruscan artifact at the Toledo Museum in 2013 and “Ka-Nefer-Nefer Funerary Mask” at the St. Louis Art Museum. Yet, at the same time, there
are also positive steps taken by museums such as the detailed investigations currently conducted by France and Germany on provenance research especially linked with Nazi-looted art and colonial times as well as successful return cases such as “Zeugma Mosaics” from a US museum to Turkey in 2018, “Euphronios” krater from the Metropolitan Museum of Art to Italy in 2008.

In line with the situation, and increased awareness regarding the integrity of the cultural
property as well as human rights issues, developed countries too gradually support the source country claims by signing bilateral or multilateral documents such as conventions,
memorandum of understandings, or enacting national laws regarding the import/export of
cultural goods. We should always remember that this problem is not endemic to a region or a country as the Hague Convention states every single damage “to cultural property belonging to any people whatsoever means damage to the cultural heritage of all mankind since each people makes its contribution to the culture of the world” (UNESCO, 1954, p. 1).

Therefore, it is the responsibility and right of the museums to deny any kind of unlawful
transaction which promotes criminal activities, and causes loss of prestige (as well as money) of the cultural institutions. By doing so, museums can play a significant role in creating a demand for the licit trafficking of cultural property as well as in the protection of our common heritage since it is also linked with the promotion of extremist groups/terrorist organizations such as occurred in the case of ISIL

In the end, with the rising demand for “fair trade” and “organic” products as well as the
moral factors, a reasonable balance between market and source countries must be created based on consistency and goodwill with no exception in the application of already established standards (Bauer, 2008, p. 714). Moreover, the unique nature of concerned market goods is at least equally significant to be considered since cultural properties are irreplaceable or in more popular words unsustainable.

Do you think should museums return the looted/illegally exported or imported cultural/natural property back to the source country?

Should more able countries protect the cultural/natural objects of less capable states?

Do you see problems/challenges in the whole process of repatriation?


  • Bauer, A. A. (2007). New Ways of Thinking About Cultural Property: A Critical Appraisal of the Antiquities Trade Debates. Fordham International Law Journal, 31(3), 690-724.
  • ICOM. (2017). Code of Ethics: ICOM Code of Ethics for Museums. Paris: ICOM.
  • UNESCO. (2013). The Fight Against the Illicit Trafficking of Cultural Objects the 1970 Convention: Past and Future Information Kit. Paris.
  • UNESCO. (1954). Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict. The Hague.

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