African waters, treasure trove for international entrepreneurs in the antiquities market

Thijs Maarleveld

South Denmark University, ICOMOS

The relative success of the 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property and the 1995 UNIDROIT Convention, has encouraged the antiquities market – and especially the big auction houses – to look for new sources for antiquities in bulk. Shipwrecks provide these by shiploads. Due to the complexities of international law, underwater operations feeding the market have not met with any legal restrictions until the beginning of 2009 when the 2001 UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage entered into force. It is now ratified by 36 countries, and needs to gain more appreciation and support.

In the meantime African waters have become a major target for large-scale treasure-hunting. This stealing and appropriation of heritage follow the logic of eighteenth and nineteenth century imperialism without consideration to the role of heritage in the 21st century. Operators sweet talk governments into providing exclusive rights and museums into opportunistic acquisitions.

The urgent situation in Africa will be presented with a variety of examples, including wholesale destruction of sites in order to promote a lifestyle clothing line in Europe. It is the background for the need to include the maritime spheres in developing policies for management of cultural heritage in Africa.

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