On 17 September 2009 in Avilès (Spain), a conference took place on “Cultural Diplomacy”. I participated in one of the organised panels, which addressed the issue of restitutions of stolen art. All the presentations and discussions were in English without translation into any other languages. A brief discussion, also in English, was quickly organized with journalists just after the panel. One of them, Mr. Saul Fernandez, wrote an article for the newspaper “the Nueva España”. His article does not reflect in any manner neither my thoughts, nor what I said. I can only assume that something was obviously lost in communication because of the diversity of languages.
I have never said, at any time, that the Parthenon’s friezes presented in the British Museum should remain in the United-Kingdom. ICOM does not believe the solution is in taking sides on cultural property disputes. This statement has only been developed to make a provocative article. I regret that, during the discussion with Mr.Saul Fernandez, there was a breakdown in communication, which has clearly led to misinterpretation. To set the record straight: The panel, on which I participated in the Cultural Diplomacy Forum with three other panellists, was largely holocaust related, and focused on the restitution of stolen art. I launched the discussion by raising questions regarding possible misunderstanding of definitions with regard to “what is stolen art?”, and “in which contexts can we speak of stolen objects?”. I invited the participants to reflect on all aspects of the issue – including indeed dismembered heritage (but also human remains, religious objects, objects looted during wars, etc.) – which, because of the lack of adequate legislation in force at the time found its way into foreign museums — the most pertinent example of this, of course, being the Elgin marbles, although examples are not lacking in many other Western museums.
I, then, addressed the need for ratification of international conventions and strong national legislation, and also cooperation at an international level. In the case of cultural property disputes, I stressed recourse to ICOM’s mediation procedure.
ICOM is a non-governmental organisation – a professional one, not a political one. I have the concerns of all of our members at heart and am deeply committed to defending the interests of all of our 117 National Committees and 155 represented Nations. In the case of a
dispute, ICOM suggests that when dialogue is unfortunately blocked, alternative solutions should be envisaged. Why do you think it has
set up its Mediation Procedure? May I invite readers to take a look at ICOM’s statement on mediation (http://icom.museum/
statement_mediation_eng.html), which clearly expresses the position of our organisation. I am happy to say that, in Avilès, much interest
was expressed from the audience when I reminded and defended this alternative option proposed by ICOM, including from seasoned
international lawyers who have experienced the limits of confrontational legal ways in restitution disputes.
Julien Anfruns, Director General of ICOM