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Igorot axe seized & restored to Philippines

Media Release, Illegally removed tribal hunting axe returned to Philippines Government, Australian Federal Police, 23 November 2021

Editor’s note: Images of the seized axe and restitution ceremony are available via hightail

A steel and wood axe from the early- to mid-1900s that was seized under Australian legislation was returned to the Philippines Government last week (Friday, 19 November 2021).

The Australian Federal Police’s INTERPOL National Central Bureau (INTERPOL Canberra) works with national and international law enforcement agencies to detect sources of illicit trafficking of cultural material.

It has made ongoing international enquiries into a US-based online vendor selling cultural heritage objects found to be illegally removed.

INTERPOL Canberra joined the Office for the Arts (OFTA), Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), and the Australian Border Force (ABF) to return the axe to the Philippines in a restitution ceremony in Canberra. It follows two other restitution ceremonies in Australia in the past year in which illegally trafficked cultural items were returned to the governments of Mexico and Peru.

The axe is associated with the Igorot communities in Northern Luzon, Philippines. This style of axe is still used for woodcarving and hunting by the Igorot communities. Axes like this example were also used for headhunting, a custom that the Igorots maintained until the early 1900s.

The ABF intercepted the item at the border in June 2020 after an Australian customer purchased it from the US-based vendor of interest. The ABF referred the matter to the OFTA for advice for possible contravention of the Protection of Movable Cultural Heritage Act 1986.

The OFTA consulted with Australian experts who assessed the axe to be authentic. The Government of the Philippines requested restitution of the object in January 2021, asserting that the object was protected under its cultural property laws.

The OFTA seized the axe on 17 May 2021, and it was forfeited to the Commonwealth on 28 June 2021.

The axe was returned to the Ambassador of the Philippines to Australia, Her Excellency, Ms Hellen Barber de la Vega, at a formal restitution ceremony last week. The Office for the Arts returned the axe at the ceremony and was joined by representatives from INTERPOL Canberra, ABF and DFAT.

The US-based vendor who sold the axe was first detected during Operation Athena II, a global customs-police operation spanning 103 countries, which included INTERPOL Canberra, focussed on disrupting the illicit trafficking of cultural heritage.

Globally, more than 19,000 archaeological artefacts and other artworks have been recovered during Operation Athena II and more than 100 people have been arrested.

Enquiries into the US-based vendor who sold the axe continue with US law enforcement partners.

AFP Acting Assistant Commissioner International Command Melinda Phelan said law enforcement agencies around the world were increasingly receiving reports about cultural items and art being illegally trafficked.

“INTERPOL Canberra has been working closely with our partners in Australia and around the world to retrieve and return property illegally removed from their country of origin before they reach private collections and disappear from view,” a/Assistant Commissioner Phelan said.

ABF Group Manager for Customs, Vanessa Holben, said that officers are attuned to attempts to illegally import cultural items into Australia.

“Thanks to the efforts of ABF officers at the border, this item was detected and referred to the Office for the Arts. We will continue to work closely with stakeholders to combat this type of cultural theft,” Group Manager Holben said.

The axe was the sixth item sold by the US-based vendor to an Australian customer that has been intercepted and returned to a foreign government in the past 12 months.

On 4 November 2021, a rare Incan wood carved vessel depicting mating llamas, dating from the Late Horizon period of the Incan Empire (1440–1532) was returned to the Government of Peru.

On 11 November 2020, four objects of Mexican cultural heritage from the Mesoamerican Classical Period (800 BC–500 AD) were returned to Mexico in a formal restitution ceremony. These items included a Chinesco polychrome seated figure, three Tlatilco bi-chrome ‘pretty lady’ figurines on a shared stand and two Jalisco pottery seated female sheep-face figurines.

The process of investigating and returning stolen or illicitly exported objects can take some time, and will often involve the AFP’s INTERPOL Canberra, OFTA, ABF and DFAT.

More information on Australia’s laws referring to the import and export of cultural heritage can be found on the Office for the Arts website.

INTERPOL Works of Art Mobile Application

This year, INTERPOL also launched its mobile app “ID-Art” to identify stolen cultural property and art, reduce illicit trafficking, and increase the chances of recovering stolen items. Publicly available, the App introduces new audiences to INTERPOL’s Stolen Works of Art database, which contains more than 52,000 objects from 134 member countries.

ID-Art can be used by police officers, custom officials, the general public, private collectors, art dealers, journalists, students or art enthusiasts to:

  • Access the INTERPOL database of Stolen Works of Art to check if an object is registered as stolen
  • Create an inventory of private art collections
  • Report an item as stolen
  • Report cultural sites potentially at risk or illicit excavations

You can download ID-Art free of charge for Apple and Android mobile devices.

Media enquiries

AFP Media: (02) 5126 9297

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