Emergency Red List for Syria published - Museums Association

Emergency Red List for Syria published

The crisis in Syria has prompted Icom to launch a resource to help prevent the illegal trade of cultural objects. Patrick Steel assesses the effectiveness of the 13 lists
Patrick Steel
The International Council of Museums (Icom) has published an Emergency Red List Of Syrian Cultural Objects At Risk.

The list, which was revealed in September, is the organisation’s fourth Emergency Red List, and the 13th in its series of Red Lists, since the first one was launched in 2000. But how effective are they?

France Desmarais, director of programmes at Icom, cites several recent cases, including one last year in which French authorities used the Iraq list to identify, seize and return several artefacts being sold illegally through an auction website.

She also refers to a case five years ago in which UK customs officials at Heathrow airport used the Afghanistan list to identify 1,500 objects looted from the Kabul Museum, which were returned with the help of the British Museum.

Preventing illegal trade

The lists do not prevent theft, she says, but they are a practical tool in preventing illegal trade, and contribute to the seizure and return of illicitly traded objects.

As a result of the lists, Desmarais says Icom receives calls from customs agents around the world asking for advice.

The World Customs Organisation (WCO) publishes the lists on its customs enforcement network, a global system for sharing intelligence on illicit trade.

But a WCO spokeswoman says the organisation does not maintain information to determine whether, at a national level, the lists are used to facilitate or identify the cultural property seizures.

Lack of experience

An issue for the WCO, she adds, is a lack of experience in combating the smuggling of cultural goods and assessing the value and authenticity of items. But the lists are part of a network that links customs officials with experts worldwide who can help identify suspicious artefacts.

The lists are “an awareness raiser but not a perfect solution”, says Augusta McMahon, a senior lecturer in the Department of Archaeology at the University of Cambridge and a contributor to the Syria list. But she adds that they have a cumulative effect that, alongside other ways of fighting illicit trade, have an impact.

This is certainly the belief of Maurice Davies, the head of policy and communication at the Museums Association. He says that over the years, the Red Lists from Icom have been instrumental in raising awareness with museums and the art trade.

Increasingly diligent

Museums are now “incredibly careful”, says Davies, and the London art market is far more diligent now than it was a decade ago.

An issue for future lists is their expense. There is a need for a Red List for south-east Europe, says Desmarais, but it is dependent on funding.

It takes months to put each list together. The process follows strict procedures, with help from international experts. Tens of thousands of copies of each list that Icom produces are printed in several languages.

Funding contributions

The Syria list was funded by the US Department of State, which has wholly or partly funded 10 of the 13 programmes. Switzerland, the Netherlands, Denmark and France have also contributed.

Desmarais would not reveal how much Icom received, saying only that it was “a substantial contribution for each list”.

But the expense is nothing, she says, compared with the value of the objects in question.

Red Lists


Icom considers three criteria when creating a Red List:

  • There has to be market demand for the objects
  • The objects must be at risk following a specific event, or in danger of being looted
  • The objects must be protected by national legislation

Regular lists

African Archaeological Objects (2000)

Latin American Cultural Objects (2003)

Afghanistan Antiquities (2006)

Peruvian Antiquities (2007)

Cambodian Antiquities (2009)

Endangered Cultural Objects of Central America & Mexico (2009)

Chinese Cultural Objects (2010) Colombian Cultural Objects (2010)

Dominican Cultural Objects (2013)

Emergency lists

Iraqi Antiquities (2003)

Haitian Cultural Objects (2010)

Egyptian Cultural Objects (2011)

Syrian Cultural Objects (2013)

Lists due in 2014


West Africa and Mali

Potential lists

South-east Europe

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