Diplomats and art smuggling

The abuse of the diplomatic pouch by diplomats, UN peacekeepers, other foreign soldiers and aid workers to smuggle of art and antiquities is a public secret, 1 officially denied by most authorities but unofficially admitted by others. 2 Because of their diplomatic status, smuggling is extremely difficult to prove. To what extent can this claim be substantiated?

Patrick O’Keefe and Lyndell Prott of the Australian National University argue that the involvement of diplomats in the illicit art trade is ‘of considerable concern’. 3 Enamul Haque, director of the International Centre for the Study of Bengal Art and retired director of the Bangladesh National Museum, agrees. ‘Yes, diplomats cause a lot of damage and abuse the diplomatic pouch’. 4 As an example, Haque describes a case in the 1970s, when an American doctor abused his position as a foreigner to smuggle many ancient objects out of Bangladesh, which he then sold to museums and private collectors in the United States. A Japanese and an Italian diplomat had also purchased and exported a number of stone statues.

In Cambodia ‘diplomats are a bigger danger than tourists’, says Etienne Clement, head of the UNESCO office in Phnom Penh. ‘Many of their houses are full of ancient Cambodian objects. When they move to their next post, they most likely take all the objects with them. Tourists are often fobbed off with fakes’. 5 Yaro Gella, former director-general of Nigeria’s museums and monuments, claims that diplomats in Nigeria misuse their privileges to smuggle objects out of the country in the diplomatic pouch, particularly at the end of their term in the country. 6 Usually no action is taken against any of these diplomats.

In Peru in the 1980s a retired US diplomat was ‘the principal player in the mass exodus of looted Moche artefacts’, using tourists, aircraft personnel and even nuns to smuggle them out of the country. 7 In 2000, a Swedish television documentary reported on the illicit activities of a Swedish diplomat in Peru who over the years had used the diplomatic pouch to export Tumaco statues. A museum in Stockholm had purchased 102 objects from him. 8

In 2002, the Peruvian business daily La Industria claimed that in 1996 a former French ambassador, Camille Rohou, had used the diplomatic pouch to smuggle two paintings by the sixteenth-century Italian master Bernardo Bitti to France. They had been stolen from the church of San Juan de Létran in Chuquito province. 9 On 25 September 2000, the Bolivian police seized 100 pieces of colonial-era art from one house, three of which were identified as religious paintings reported stolen from Bolivian churches. Such paintings fall into a category of art protected because of its historical interest. 10