Department for Culture Media and Sport

illicit trade in cultural property

The International Cultural Property Unit works with various stakeholders to prevent and prohibit the illicit trade in cultural objects.

The UK government takes the issue of illicit trade in cultural goods seriously.

In 2003 it introduced the Dealing in Cultural Objects (Offences) Act 2003. Under the Act, with effect from 30th December 2003, it became an offence for any person to dishonestly deal in a cultural object that is tainted, knowing or believing that the object is tainted.

The offence set out in the Act complements the UK’s obligations under the 1970 UNESCO Convention (PDF 70kb) on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, which the UK ratified in 2002. The Act was designed to fill a gap in previously enacted legislation (particularly the Theft Act 1968) which covered items that had been stolen (including those stolen abroad), but not cases where an item had been illegally excavated or removed in circumstances not amounting to theft.

The Return of Cultural Objects Regulations 1994 has implemented the UK’s obligations under Council Directive 93/7/EEC of 15 March 1993 on the return of cultural objects unlawfully removed from the territory of a Member State of the EU. It confers a right of action on a member state to recover cultural objects unlawfully removed from its territory.

In October 2005, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport published Combating Illicit Trade: Due diligence guidelines for museums, libraries and archives on collecting and borrowing cultural material (PDF 329kb). This sets out guidelines to help museums, libraries and archives take precautions to ensure that they acquire, or borrow, only ethically acceptable items and reject items that might have been looted or illegally exported.

Further information on the illicit trade in cultural property can be found on the Cultural Property Advice website. The website was launched in February 2007 and provides a practical source of information and guidance to help users collect, buy and sell art, antiques and antiquities legitimately. It has separate areas for the trade, private individuals and public collections.