The illicit sale of cultural objects stolen from museums or looted from archaeological sites is a growing international problem. Countries in conflict and countries affected by natural disasters are particularly vulnerable.
On 6 July 2017, Norwegian Foreign Minister Børge Brende was in the capital of Myanmar, Nay Pyi Taw. At a formal ceremony with the Myanmar Minister of Religious Affairs and Culture H.E. Thura U Aung Ko, the Foreign Minister returned a Buddha sculpture that was illicitly imported to Norway in 2011 via Thailand.
‘Norway wants to help ensure that stolen cultural artefacts are brought back to their countries of origin, in line with international agreements. I am pleased that this beautiful sculpture is now finally back in Myanmar. At the same time, I am concerned to see that the illicit trade in cultural objects is growing, that it is taking new forms, and that it often involves international criminal networks. Profits from the illicit trade are also used to finance terrorist activities,’ said Mr Brende in his speech during the ceremony.
The sculpture, estimated to be between 150 and 200 years old, and made of alabaster and decorated with varnish, gold and glass, was discovered by an observant customs officer in Drammen in 2011. Since then, there has been an extensive process to trace its origins and finally return it to its country of origin. Close cooperation between a range of actors in Norway and other countries has made this possible. Those involved include Norwegian Customs, the Ministry of Culture, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Museum of Cultural History in Oslo, international experts, the authorities in Thailand and Myanmar, and the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
Myanmar and Norway are both parties to the UNESCO 1970 on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. The return of this Buddha statue is not only a best practice case, but also marks an important step in the cultural cooperation between the two countries, with regard to the global efforts to safeguard cultural heritage, and to curb illicit trafficking.
‘We urge all countries to strengthen their efforts to protect and return cultural objects that have gone astray. We need to see closer international cooperation to enable countries to honour their international obligations and stop illicit activities of this kind,’ said Mr Brende in the official handover ceremony.
Countries in every part of the world experience art and cultural property crime. However, countries affected by wars, crises or natural disasters are particularly vulnerable to looting and this kind of crime, as has been seen in Iraq and Syria. The UN has adopted a number of conventions to prevent and combat illicit trafficking in cultural property. Norway supports the work of Unesco and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in this area.