Witnesses to History: A Compendium of Documents and Writings on the Return of Cultural Objects

Objects can often be ambivalent. Removed from their sources, they bear the soul of those who created or cherished them to the point of identifying with them, thus creating, on the one hand, excessive influence or fame in the eyes of other nations and on the other, a deprivation sometimes felt very cruelly by those who held them dearly, in the most literal sense of the verb.

This ambivalent situation inherent in the circulation of cultural property arises whenever that circulation takes place against the wishes of the communities that created the property. The impact of that question exceeds by far the simple legal aspect under which it can be approached, and it was UNESCO that has taken up the challenge and has provided two strong responses.

The first response is of a legal nature. In 1970, the Organization decided to adopt the Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. UNESCO will soon commemorate the fortieth anniversary of this pioneering normative instrument of universal scope, which has been ratified by 120 States Parties and is rightly recognized as the leading convention in the fight against illicit trafficking in cultural objects.