Skip to main content

Stolen Treasures

Volume 164: debated on Monday 18 December 1989

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.


To ask the Minister for the Arts what representations he has had from the Society of Antiquaries about problems of identified stolen art treasures being auctioned in sale rooms abroad; the difficulties of reacquiral of such objects by the churches and other organisations from whom they were stolen; and the need for Her Majesty's Government to satisfy article 7 of the United Nations Educational. Scientific and Cultural Organisation convention, relating to a wide definition of cultural property.

I have received a number of representations from the Society of Antiquaries on this subject.

I am gratified. Would that not make the Government more effective in dealing with future Icklinghams?

I appreciate the importance of the hon. Gentleman's supplementary question about stolen works of art, or alleged stolen works of art, and the Icklingham case of Roman bronzes is foremost in everybody's mind at the moment. I am seeing my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Sir E. Griffiths) on this issue tomorrow.

I have thought carefully about the UNESCO convention, but various other avenues are available to us. It is right to say that the Metropolitan police arts and antiques squad has been reconstituted. A computerised data base to index stolen art works is about to be set up. That will take place in January. The trade is already operating two codes of practice. The various procedures are fairly widespread. I remain to be convinced that the UNESCO convention, which is a fairly bureaucractic and cumbersome procedure, is the right way to deal with this difficult problem.

As a fellow of the society, may I ask my right hon. Friend to reconsider this whole issue very carefully? It is a serious matter. As UNESCO is no longer the absolute charade that it was a few years ago, it would help enormously if my right hon. Friend would ratify the convention.

Of course I take my hon. Friend's question seriously, but there is a general point to be made. The whole question of export controls is to be reviewed under the 1992 procedure, and that will apply to works of art and the restitution of works of art. The matter can be considered in that context.

The Minister knows that the measures that he has outlined will not secure the return of the bronzes, which are now in New York. Does he accept that he has responsibility for our heritage and, in particular, those bronzes, which were illegally excavated, illegally exported and, in effect, have been stolen from Mr. Browning, who has a good claim to them?

If the Minister is serious about the matter, will he raise it with the United States Government? Is not that the only way of ensuring that the bronzes are returned to their rightful country, Great Britain?

Of course I am serious about the issue, but, as the hon. Gentleman knows, the police are currently investigating the matter. There has not yet been a court case to prove that the bronzes were stolen. If there is, and if that is the conclusion, further action can be taken.