Forum Archaeologiae - Zeitschrift für klassische Archäologie 55 / VI / 2010


The phenomenon of illicit traffic in cultural goods has been internationally present since ancient times. Through history this phenomenon persists in the centuries ahead, and even nowadays, relating power, financial strength and the desire for prompt and easy money.
Illicit traffic in cultural and natural goods is a non-ethical act seen from various perspectives, which could be summarized as follows:

  • - The commercialization of these goods, their usage for personal enjoyment and profit, influences the destruction of archeological and historical sites and of contextual information, that are extremely important for the value of the objects;
  • - The possibilities for illicit traffic motivate the "wild" diggers to destroy cultural localities and goods;
  • - Due to lack of documentation, absence of registries on the cultural layers and on the context, cultural information carried by the heritage objects is weakened;
  • - Illicit traffic in cultural and natural goods and the possibility to export those goods in other environments, initiate cultural devastation of the local and national communities;
  • - The private collectors are potential initiators of illicit traffic in cultural and natural goods etc.
    The ethics should be understood as a need for establishing standards, according to which individuals and communities should behave in relation to the protection of cultural goods. This is especially valid for the professionals, employed in the institutions that take care of the protection of cultural goods, but also for the persons employed in the state institutions that should prevent or reduce illicit traffic in these goods.
    Having in mind that in practice a subject of illicit traffic could be archeological, ethnological, artistic, historical and natural goods, that are usually kept in museums, our stances will be directed toward ethical relations in museums and professional museum associations, but also in other institutions that could influence the prevention of illicit traffic in cultural and natural goods.
    The frequency of illicit traffic in cultural and natural goods initiated a number of measures at international level, that will influence the prevention or alleviation of the different forms of this phenomenon. Namely, the few international conventions are a guarantee of prevention of illicit traffic in cultural goods. The few documents of ICOM together with UNESCO that refer to the Ethics of Museum Acquisitions and the Code of museum ethics are also crucial.
    The international and national documents provide standard frames in which the ethical aspects of cultural heritage protection could be put, which is primarily an obligation of museum institutions. For the concrete realization of the ethical standards the professionalism of museum personnel is important.
    The seriousness of the issue of illicit traffic in cultural goods motivated ICOM to organize a number of regional conferences, from which a number of publications has stemmed, through which the public and experts in the covered regions are being informed on the issue (Asia, Africa, Latin America, Europe etc.).
    A special quality in prevention of robbery from museums and archeological sites is the cooperation with the World Customs Organization and Interpol. In this sense in 2000 ICOM has signed Memorandum of Agreement with these two organizations, defining the common fight against illicit traffic with cultural goods. An important role in the efficiency of the fight against illicit traffic is held by Internet, that connects organizations ad institutions in the world. However, as the activities against illicit traffic are becoming more sophisticated, the methods used by the perpetrators are also getting more and more refined, and this asks for intensification of cooperation of all factors that fight against illicit traffic.
    At international level there is a harmonized approach that guarantees that the fight against illicit traffic in cultural and natural goods will be fought successfully. However, at a local or state level plans differ.
    We witness an increase in devastation and robbing of archeological and historical sites, besides the efforts made by the responsible institutions to prevent such events. This shows that the illicit traffic in cultural goods has increased as well. Many questions are raised in this sense, especially:
  • - Do institutions (firstly all museums) provide appropriate protection of the given goods?
  • - Do institutions respect the Conventions in terms of non-acquisition of goods that do not have proper documentation, whose ownership is not clear?
  • - Do individuals/experts (working in institutions or outside them) respect ethical norms in all phases of their work, having in mind the conflict of interests, the legal acquisition of objects etc.?
  • - Are certain persons helping the "wild" diggers and collectors in the illicit traffic?
  • - What is the attitude of the museums when confronted with requests for restitution of objects?
  • - Do national and local communities provide appropriate protection and prevent illicit traffic in cultural and natural goods?
  • - How well does the coordination between institutions function, the ones that take care of the cultural and natural heritage and certain state institutions (the customs and the police) in prevention of illicit traffic? In this area we also witness certain irregularities.
    All above mentioned issues are worked out in detail in the Ethical codex for museums of ICOM, but it is a question if those are implemented.

    © Krste Bogoeski

    This article should be cited like this: K. Bogoeski, Ethical Aspects of the Phenomenon of Illicit Traffic in Cultural Goods, Forum Archaeologiae 55/VI/2010 (