Symposium Report: Lessons from Cyprus on Retrieving Cultural Heritage

By our Student Reporter Hande Özkayagan.

I am very lucky to start my series of reports with an issue which is related to my field of study: law. Art trafficking has always been an fascinating topic for me; and as a Turkish national, getting a chance to be informed about its examples so close to my country, in relation to Turkey and Cyprus’ common histories was indeed very intriguing. The event -Retrieving Cultural Heritage: Combatting Cypriot art trafficking and restitution- was held in Rijksmuseum van Oudheden (23 January 2020), which organized the seminar together with LeidenGlobal, an organization formed in 2016 with the aim of bringing together experts from various fields who are living in Leiden and of initiating constructive dialog. Considering the current exhibition in Rijksmuseum on Cypriot archaeological objects, “Cyprus-Island on the move”, this seminar gave a sense of entirety to the exhibition as well through a discussion on the legal and sociological realities behind retrieving cultural heritage and promoting its protection. Individual speeches of Tasoula Hadijtofi, Willy Bruggeman and Bleda During were later followed by Pieter ter Keurs’ moderation of a debate between these speakers, with the participation of Lucas Petit, on combatting art trafficking and effective methods to address this issue.

Combatting Cypriot Art Trafficking
Prof. dr. Pieter ter Keurs (standing left) moderating the debate at Retrieving Cultural Heritage Symposium. Photograph by Hande Özkayagan.

I must admit, hearing personal anecdotes from Tasoula Hadjitofi and realizing how her life is tangled up in these quests to unravel the lootings of cultural goods, the embodiments of the realities of Cypriot history, which sadly has been condemned to fade away unless protected, was very moving. You could feel the sense of duty and responsibility in her passionate description of events; as if almost, finding these objects and bringing them back home has not just become a purpose in life for her, but also her destiny. She describes her passion as an obligation for peace and reconciliation with her own past. Perhaps, as the general public who lack the expertise and awareness in this field, we should approach this issue from Hadjitofi’s perspective: ideas of private ownership of cultural heritage are outdated and inadequate. A notion of joint ownership, that cultural heritage belongs to humanity and thus collaborative actions from the public are required, needs to be adopted if an effective approach against this issue is desired.


The unfortunate take-away of the debate among the speakers in the end was that the current enforcement policies for combatting art trafficking, protection of cultural heritage and restituting them; along with the international reaction to these issues are obviously not effective, if not enough. As long as the demand in the international markets for these looted objects remain high, tackling this issue will still be problematic. Reducing this demand requires a two-tiered approach: including the public in these discussions by raising awareness, and strengthening the implementation of the international instruments in hand. In fact, instruments do exist, such as the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict[i] and the 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property[ii], that could be potent. Yet they are not implemented properly, sometimes not even ratified by the member states, as the speakers repeatedly emphasized. Considering the industrial scale of looting of cultural objects, the high numbers of illegal handling in Europe, and the difficulty in confirming the figures of various organizations on looted objects (the figures are either underestimated or overestimated) due to the non-transparent structure of the art market; there is an apparent and urgent need for more cooperation between European countries and organizations, such as Europol. Importance of provenance research for imported art objects could not be more crucial, in tracing back the legal and financial origins of the object and the transaction; and this requires a solid collaboration between customs officers and experts in archeology, and art history, and even law.


It all boils down to this: if it was not for the fight Tasoula Hadjitofi gave to rescue the cultural objects belonging to Cyprus, a part of history of humanity would be lost. This is a fight beyond nations, this is a fight given to protect the identity and memory of humanity as a whole