Documentation: Import & Export

Import/export documents are the first tool to regulate the international movement of cultural property and counter the transaction of stolen or looted cultural objects. 


International legal requirements

The use of documentation specifically addressing importation and exportation of cultural goods is one of the best solutions to efficiently control the movement of these types of objects and counter their illegal export.

The use of export certificates is one of the key requirements of the 1970 UNESCO Convention. In its article 6, the Convention states that:

"The States Parties to this Convention undertake:

(a) To introduce an appropriate certificate in which the exporting State would specify that the export of the cultural property in question is authorized. The certificate should accompany all items of cultural property exported in accordance with the regulations;

(b) to prohibit the exportation of cultural property from their territory unless accompanied by the above-mentioned export certificate;

(c) to publicize this prohibition by appropriate means, particularly among persons likely to export or import cultural property."

The text also requires that States Parties control and promote their use within their territory.


Export certificates: A “passport” for cultural property

People travelling to other countries need a valid passport. Similarly, export certificates are like a passport for cultural property. As passports, they must include a quality picture. They can be used either for a definitive export, or for temporary movements in the case of a loan for an exhibition.

Export certificates make the work of law enforcement agencies and other national and international authorities easier, allowing them to stop any cultural item unaccompanied of such documentation, and to further investigate the legality of their origin. Without them, cultural property may cross borders without any control.

Furthermore, export certificates allow retracing the origin and history of the object, thus facilitating the search for provenance of the object.

A growing number of countries have adopted legislation on export certificates as a legal requirement for the movement of cultural goods. Though their use remains a political decision, they also help preventing the export of tainted objects from their country of origin, and thus the long and costly subsequent administrative procedure to try to repatriate them.


Different models of export requirements

Countries are protecting their cultural property in many different ways. While some countries have a very strict policy regarding the export of cultural objects and the related administrative procedure, other have no regulation at all and don’t control the circulation of cultural items from their territory.

With regard to export regulations, four types of countries can be distinguished:

  • Countries where public collections are considered inalienable and can’t leave the country without a specific authorisation from the highest authorities, and where the export of private cultural property needs to follow a strict procedure.
  • Countries that do not issue export certificates because both private and public collections are considered inalienable and can’t leave the national territory without exceptional motives.
  • Countries that do not issue export certificates for cultural property because there is currently no regulation and/or real control regarding its movement.

It is consequently strongly recommended to check the national requirements of the concerned country before initiating the export of cultural goods.


Regional harmonisation

In view of the important disparities between countries with regards to export requirements and the resulting difficulties to control the circulation of cultural goods, the harmonisation of export procedures is strongly advocated by the organisations and agencies specialised in the fight against illicit traffic in cultural goods.

At the EU level, the Council Regulation No 116/2009 of 18 December 2008 on the export of cultural goods forbids the exportation of these types of objects outside the customs territory of the Community without the presentation of an export licence.


Import regulations

The use of export certificates can also be completed by the implementation of import procedures for cultural property, as they exist for other types of goods (toys, food products, electronic devices, etc.). A very limited number of countries do have such regulations. In Europe, Greece, Italy, Latvia and Spain have implemented specific regulations for the import of cultural objects, with different levels of requirement.

In Greece for example, “cultural objects can be freely imported into Greek territory provided the provisions of the UNESCO Convention of 1970 as well as other rules of international law are not violated. The holder of imported antiquities has, without undue delay, to declare their import to the Archaeological Service as well as the manner in which they came to his possession.” The country also has further provisions regarding the ownership of imported cultural objects.

At the EU level, unlike other types of goods entering the common market, there is no import regulation for cultural items at the present time. Nevertheless, the issue is currently being discussed between Member States, in order to reinforce the detection of stolen or illegally exported cultural property within the European market. In the past, extraordinary import regulations have already been implemented concerning cultural objects coming from Iraq (2003) or Syria (2013).


Authorities delivering certificates

Only the appointed competent national authorities can issue export certificates, and allow the movement of cultural property. Export certificates are usually delivered by the Ministry of Culture, or the appropriate authority within another ministry. Private individuals, NGOs, international organisations and companies are not allowed to issue such certificates.

Should the cultural object originate from another country, authorities are expected to contact their counterparts in the State from which the cultural object in question came.

The export certificate shall be presented when the customs export formalities are carried out, at the customs office authorised to accept such declarations. Due to the growing use of fake export certificates, custom authorities are expected to carefully examine the documentation accompanying cultural objects. Individuals shall not use documentation which was not directly delivered by competent authorities.

The UNESCO Database of National Cultural Heritage Laws provides, upon request, an access to the list of national authorities delivering export certificates, as well as models of these certificates.


UNESCO-WCO model export certificate

The Model Export Certificate for Cultural Objects was jointly prepared by the Secretariats of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the World Customs Organization (WCO), cooperating to combat illicit trafficking in cultural property.

Knowing that currently, in most countries, the same export form is used for "ordinary" objects (computers, clothes, etc.) as for cultural objects, this model fulfils requirements for identifying and tracing cultural objects, yet it is not overly burdensome for exporters and customs officials. UNESCO and the WCO recommend adopting the model, in its entirety or in part, as the national export certificate specifically for cultural objects.

This practical tool is specifically adapted to control the increasing phenomenon of cross-border movements of cultural objects, and will help States to accentuate their due vigilance over the import and export of cultural property by facilitating the work of customs officials.