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EU on returning cultural objects

Patrick Steel, ‘EU makes it easier to return looted cultural objects’ 21 May 2014, Museums Association (UK) website.

The European Parliament has approved changes to a directive aimed at helping EU countries organise the return of cultural objects unlawfully removed from one member state to another. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) believes will see a rise in requests for returns across the EU as a result.

The decision to recast the directive was taken following a review concluding that the directive was ineffective. The changes seek to improve communications between national authorities and to extend the scope of cultural objects covered by the directive.

The changed directive retains the limitation that it only applies to objects unlawfully removed on or after 1 January 1993.

Until now the UK has received no formal requests from other member states for the return of objects under Directive 93/7/EEC, but there have been a number of amicable out-of-court settlements since 1993 when it was first adopted.

These included the return of a collection of ancient medals to Finland in 1999; in 2003 manuscripts were returned to the Netherlands, and manuscripts from 18th century archives were returned to Portugal; in 2006 a piece of ancient money was returned to Greece; and in 2011 six icons were returned to Greece, and two manuscripts from the 14th and 15th centuries plus a 14th century missal were returned to Italy.

In 2007 France returned a 14th century Hebrew manuscript to the UK.

A number of cases have not been resolved, with a 2005 request from Greece for a Byzantine icon located in the UK marked as “ongoing”, while a query from France over a musical instrument it believed was located in the UK received “no reply” according to the EU’s records.

A DCMS spokeswoman said: “The wider scope of the recast directive is likely to result in more requests for the return of cultural objects across the EU member states. The DCMS has issued due diligence guidelines for museums on collecting and borrowing cultural material.

“Provided that museums have carried out full provenance checks on cultural objects they acquire (establishing where an object came from, and when and how it left its country of origin and any intermediate country), then the sector should not be exposed to a greater number of requests for returns.”

The proposal to change Directive 93/7/EEC was adopted by the European Parliament on 16 April, given final approval by the Council of Europe on 8 May, and will come into effect with the next publication of the Official Journal of the European Union. Member states then have 18 months to transpose the new provisions of the directive into their national laws.


The new Directive on the return of cultural objects was published in the official journal on 28 May 2014.