Questions & Answers

Here are some of the most commonly asked questions about cultural heritage and illicit trafficking of cultural property.

What is heritage?

Answer: Cultural heritage is a concept that is difficult to define. One can say that it consists of various forms of human activity. Usually we think of the tangible heritage such as buildings, monuments and objects, but there is also intangible heritage consisting of, for example, customs, traditions, stories and music. Cultural heritage is not static but changes over time. There is no fixed time limit when something starts to count as cultural heritage. Even in our own lifetime we all participate in the creation of today's and tomorrow's heritage.

What is World Heritage?

Answer: Some cultural heritage is considered so important it is classified as World Heritage. A World Heritage Site is a natural or cultural site that is so valuable that it is a concern for all of humanity to preserve it for future generations. It is a place, environment or an object that in a unique way testifies to earth and human history. When a place, environment or object is listed on the UNESCO World Heritage List it is guaranteed protection and care for eternity. Since World Heritage sites are so important, they are also particularly vulnerable in conflict.

Why preserve cultural heritage?

Answer: Cultural heritage is an important part of our identity. It is our common memory that tells about the people who lived before us and how today's society emerged. Often, cultural heritage has a strong symbolic dimension which makes it particularly vulnerable in the event of war and conflict. At the same time, this symbolic value could be a unifying factor in the reconstruction, reconciliation and development after a conflict. Cultural heritage could often also be an economic resource that gives people work and income.

In what way is cultural heritage is threatened by war and conflict?

Answer: Cultural heritage is threatened in many ways by war and conflict. It can be conscious or unconscious destruction or various forms of theft and looting.

Cultural heritage is obviously damaged by the shelling, bombing and transport of troops or supplies that comes with war. Sometimes a particular building is itself the target of shelling and sometimes important heritage is simply in the way. The symbolic value of cultural heritage may mean that it is destroyed to harm the enemy psychologically or as part of efforts to wipe out the enemy's history and identity.

Wars and conflicts often lead to theft and looting of museum objects, art and antiquities. Items are smuggled out of the country and sold on the international market, and the final buyer is often found in Europe or the United States. An object can travel a long and winding road, passing through many intermediaries and provided with false papers that can make it very difficult to prove that the object is stolen. The buyers many times act in good faith.

Illegal excavations occur during conflicts; archaeological finds are dug up in places where they are present in large amount. In this way, not only the objects disappear but also the possibility to record knowledge of the past.

The lucrative market for antiquities also means that the industry producing counterfeits can flourish. Well-made replicas of ancient finds mix with the original, and can be very difficult to detect.

Looting and counterfeiting only exist as long as there is a market for the items. If demand disappears, the destruction of cultural heritage would cease.

What does the Swedish law say about importing objects from conflict zones?

Answer: In Sweden there is no general legislation governing the entry of artifacts and antiques from other countries. However, the UN has drawn up conventions and resolutions to protect cultural heritage. As the UN body for collaboration in education, culture, science and communication, UNESCO has four conventions in the field of cultural heritage that Sweden has ratified:

  • The Hague Convention (1954) addresses the protection of cultural heritage. It includes movable and immovable property, monuments, archaeological sites, works of art, manuscripts, books and other small items of artistic, historical or archaeological interest, as well as scientific collections of all kinds - regardless of their origin or ownership.
  • The Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property (1970). The Convention concerns the organization of international cooperation for the protection of national cultural property. The aim is to prevent cultural property classified as state heritage from being illegally brought out of the country and to cooperate between countries to track down and return illegally transferred cultural property to its country of origin.
  • The Convention Concerning Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage (1972). The Convention aims to protect the items included on the World Heritage List in perpetuity (see the previous question for information on what a World Heritage Site is).
  • The Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage (2003) aims to highlight and pass on cultural diversity, human creativity, traditions and expressions. Sweden has also acceded to the 1995 UNIDROIT Convention which contains a more detailed framework for the return of illegally exported artifacts.

Furthermore, the UN Security Council Resolution 2199 (2015) prohibits trade of cultural property from Syria and Iraq. There is also EU legislation with the same purpose. The Swedish government has, under direction from the UN Security Council, issued sanctions banning all trade in cultural goods from Syria and Iraq. The sanctions apply to objects that left Iraq after August 6, 1990 and left Syria after May 9, 2011. The violation of these sanctions may incur imprisonment.

Why protect cultural heritage while people are dying or are forced to flee?
Answer: It may seem cynical to talk about the protection of cultural heritage in the conflicts in which people are injured and killed, and of course the protection of people and human life always comes first. But one must remember that cultural heritage is a very important part of our identity. Cultural heritage is our common memory that tells the story of the people who lived before us and how today's society emerged. Often, its strong symbolic dimension makes it particularly vulnerable in the event of war and conflict. However, this aspect can be a unifying factor in reconstruction, reconciliation and development after a conflict.

Cultural heritage is also an aspect of the tourism industry, and thus functions also as an economic resource providing people work and income.

Sometimes, the theft of cultural property is a source of income for one or more combatant groups. In Syria and Iraq, the systematic looting of museums and excavation sites is used as a source of income by for example IS, which is why the UN Security Council has banned trade in art and antiquities from these countries.

Would it not be better if objects and antiquities could come here rather than remain in conflict areas where they risk being destroyed?
Answer: Research shows that it is the market in the Western world that serves as the engine for looting and illegal excavations in Syria, Iraq, and many other places. Each object that comes to this market contributes to ongoing crime in the countries of origin, theft from museums, illegal excavations and the continued production of fakes.

How big is the problem in Sweden?
Answer: Seen in an international perspective, Sweden is of course a small market. By increasing awareness of the issue, we can ensure that it remains so.

Why are illegal excavations a problem? The objects must surely be dug up sooner or later...?
Answer: An archaeological excavation is based on certain methods and procedures. In order to interpret an archaeological object, it is crucial to know where it has been found, among which other objects, etc. It is the objects and the context together that gives us knowledge about the people who lived before us. If no such aspects are documented, there is a risk that objects can be misinterpreted or become completely incomprehensible. When things are excavated without proper documentation, the context can never be recovered and this knowledge is lost forever.

Are there counterfeit objects circulating right now?
Answer: Yes, but what has reached the Swedish market is anybody's guess.

Where should I turn if I suspect that an object has been illegally imported?
Answer: Contact your local law enforcement authorities (police or customs). You can also contact the International Council of Museums (ICOM) in case you need help with the identification of suspicious cultural items:

What can I do to help protect cultural property?

Answer: You can help in many ways:

  • Learn more about Iraq and Syria's cultural property: The National Museums of World Culture, Sweden offers both exhibitions and programs about the area.
  • Explore cultural heritage in your area.
  • Check the ICOM Red List database to learn more about the categories of cultural objects that are at risk of being trafficked illicitly
  • Spread the message by sharing our animated film in social media with the hashtag #Unite4Heritage.
  • Donate to Unesco's Heritage Emergency Fund.