London, May 25: Kim Howells, the British culture minister, is accusing Britain’s leading auction houses of trading in looted antiquities and demanding that they do more to ensure the provenance of objects they sell.
Howells, who caused uproar last week when he accused American film stars of being too “terrified” to fly to Europe, has now infuriated British auctioneers and art dealers with a suggestion that they could actually be supporting the trade in stolen goods, even if they do so unwittingly.
A new Bill, which is going through Parliament with government support, will make it a criminal offence to deal in cultural objects knowing that they have been stolen or looted. Howells, however, told The Daily Telegraph that concerted action was still required from dealers and auctioneers to stamp out the trade in looted antiquities.
“We know that some of the most famous sales outlets in the country have been involved, whether knowing or unknowingly,” he said.
“It is time that they got their act together to make sure they are not unwittingly part of organised crime. Fortunes have been made in London by gangsters dealing in art objects stolen from some of the poorest countries on earth. It is time we stopped this illicit trade and protected the good name of art dealers.”
The suggestion by Howells, Labour’s most outspoken minister, caused an outcry from art dealers and traders. John Newgas, the chief executive of Lapada, Britain’s largest art and antiques trade association, said: “Dealers here are not corrupt and money laundering is almost non-existent. I think a lot of people will be offended.”
Anthony Browne, the chairman of the British Art Market Federation, which covers some of the world-renowned dealers in London including Christie’s and Sotheby’s, said: “I am surprised Kim Howells has said that. If he has evidence for what he says, that is fine.”
“But the evidence for the scale of this illicit market is terribly thin. These are wild statements, but one just wants to see evidence,” he added.
Browne, who advised the government on the new legislation, added: “We wholeheartedly support the aim of this Bill but it is very important that we draw a clear distinction between people who are behaving in a criminal way and the legitimate art market, which employs nearly 40,000 people and contributes to the British economy.”
Three years ago, a report by the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research alleged that between 60 and 75 per cent of art and antiquities offered for sale in London auctions had almost no published provenance — and were almost certainly illegally excavated and smuggled from, among other places Iraq, Italy, India, Cyprus, Crete or Egypt.
The suggestion that leading auction houses could have been caught up in trading in looted antiquities brought sharp responses from leading auction houses Sotheby’s and Christie’s.
A Sotheby’s spokesman said: “We no longer sell antiquities in London. All items in our catalogues are checked with the Art Loss Register against their database for stolen art.”
A statement from Christie’s added: “We are surprised by Mr Howells’ comments in view of the fact that the government has been highly supportive of the art market in the UK. Christie’s fully supports the aims of the new Bill, which are to stamp out criminal activity that can damage the reputation of the market as a whole. We do not sell any work of art that we have reason to believe has been stolen and go to great lengths to avoid doing so.”
Under the Dealing in Cultural Objects (Offences) Bill, dealers who know or believe that a cultural object is “tainted” face up to seven years imprisonment.
The Bill has passed its committee stage in the Commons without amendment and could become law by the autumn.
Ministers regard the Bill as central to a crackdown on the trade in looted antiquities which was highlighted by the ransacking of the Iraqi national museum in Baghdad after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime.
Tessa Jowell, the culture secretary, will fly to Iraq within weeks to study the extent of the looting of artefacts. Her department is also planning to bring Iraqi officials to Britain to be trained how to preserve artefacts and set up a database of looted items.
Howells last year also courted controversy when he branded modern art as “bullshit”and last week he said that although Hollywood stars portrayed “action heroes”, the lacked ‘the balls’ to fly to Europe in the wake of international terrorist attacks.