Cultural Property

Cultural property includes cultural sites, cultural objects and forms of traditional cultural expression.

Cultural property under international law is defined in Article I of the 1954 United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property In the Event of Armed Conflict (Hague Convention) and Article I of the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property.

The movement for the defense of cultural objects is attributed to Nicholas Roerich (1874-1947). He prepared a draft international treaty in 1929 dedicated to protection of cultural values; the Roerich Pact. A 1949 UNESCO conference resolved to produce a cultural heritage protection treaty. Roerich's goal of prohibiting military necessity alone as a justification for destroying cultural property was never accepted by the international community.

UNESCO is based in Paris. It has 193 member states and seven associate member states. It was created following a United Nations Conference, for the establishment of an educational and cultural organization that would embody a genuine culture of peace, in November 1945. Its first cultural intervention was the Universal Copyright Convention, adopted under UNESCO's aegis in 1952. The 1954 Hague Convention was a response to the massive looting and destruction of European cultural heritage in Nazi-occupied countries during World War II. It was the first international treaty dedicated exclusively to the protection of cultural heritage. A second protocol was added to the Convention in March 1999 in response to widespread destruction of cultural property in the 1980s and 1990s.

Cultural real property includes locations such as National Parks, religious sites, historical burial sites and culturally significant buildings. The 310 American Indian reservations in the United States are described as cultural property. The 1972 Convention concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage sought to preserve cultural sites, and to promote the conservation of nature. It was triggered by the 1959 Aswan High Dam project in Egypt, which would have flooded a valley containing culturally significant Abu Simbel temples. Egypt and Sudan appealed to UNESCO who launched a safeguarding campaign. The World Heritage Fund provides parties with funding to identify, preserving and promote World Heritage sites. The List of World Heritage in Danger focuses international attention on areas under threat.

Works of art are cultural property. Large quantities of artwork seized by the Nazis in World War II were sold to buyers who were unaware of the immoral background of the transactions. Relatives of survivors who were able to prove former ownership and locate the works have sought to recover them, or to obtain compensation. This raised major issues where the buyer had bought in good faith for a fair price and the unscrupulous seller could not be traced. The liberating Allied forces found over 1,050 repositories of artwork stolen by the Nazi organizations Dienststelle Westen in Paris and Dienststelle Mühlmann under Hermann Göring, and by the minister of foreign affairs Joachim von Ribbentrop.

For a long time, those who first discovered archaeological sites, artefacts and shipwrecks considered themselves entitled to remove items at will. Particularly with the rise in the tourism, countries have demanded the return of precious archaeological finds. Many Western museums still retain precious statutes and sarcophagi from the Egyptian pyramids. The 1954 Hague Convention contained a protocol requiring the return of cultural property taken from occupied territory to the territory of the state from which it was removed. The 1970 UNESCO Convention sought to curb illicit international trafficking of cultural property. UNESCO's Intergovernmental Committee for Promoting the Return of Cultural Property to its Countries of Origin or its Restitution in Case of Illicit Appropriation, created in 1978 facilitates the restitution of important cultural objects outside the scope of the 1970 Convention. High profile cases include the Parthenon sculptures and the Sphinx of Bogâzköy. The 2001 Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage emphasized an urgent need to preserve and protect underwater cultural property such as the remains of ancient Alexandria and cultural property found in shipwrecks. Museums, library collections and archives are also cultural property.

The Hague Convention proposed a sign, a rhombus underneath a triangle, to identify protected cultural property. Exceptionally important cultural property may be marked with the sign in triplicate.

Forms of traditional cultural expression defined as cultural property range from music, dance and language to cuisine, religious festivals and media broadcasts. They can be protected by intellectual property law, through copyright of publications, broadcasts and performances. The 2003 UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage focused on protecting intangible cultural property.

Cultural Property: Selected full-text books and articles

Property in Question: Value Transformation in the Global Economy By Katherine Verdery; Caroline Humphrey Berg, 2004
Librarian's tip: Chap. Nine "Cultural Rights and Wrongs: Uses of the Concept of Property"
The Innocent Buyer of Art Looted during World War II By Turner, Michelle I Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law, Vol. 32, No. 5, November 1999
The Case against Statutes of Limitations for Stolen Art By Bibas, Steven A The Yale Law Journal, Vol. 103, No. 8, June 1994
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