Olivia’s Travel Blog – The Legal protection over New Zealand’s Cultural artefacts

I have recently spent a month in New Zealand, and was interested to hear about the recent debate regarding the legal protection of the national and cultural artefacts owned by New Zealand’s Māori culture. There has been a recently reported dispute surrounding a 19th century Māori pare (lintel) which appeared in a London Antique dealers with only vague provenance (Blundell). New Zealand was unable to prevent the artefact from being sold with a £35,000 price tag. Boos (2011) explains that this example shows a lack of legal protection over Māori Cultural Property offered domestically within New Zealand and internationally. The illicit trade of cultural property and art is the second most profitable illegal trafficking industry in the world (Paterson, 2001).

New Zealand’s current legislative protection over their Māori artefacts is included within the Māori Antiquities Act (1901) and the Protected Objects Act (1976) which was recently reformed in 2006 offering greater protection to those indigenous antique objects over 50 years old. This legislation only allows an artefact which is protected under Māori culture to be exported out of the country if it has been consulted by two examiners and has been issued a certificate of permission by the chief of the Māori tribe, stating it abides by their decided terms and conditions. Similarly, in England and Wales, the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property (signed in 2017), section 17, makes it an offence to deal with cultural property in England and Wales if the artefact has been unlawfully exported from the country (UNESCO, 1954).

There are also two current international preventions set in place. Firstly, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization 1970 (UNESCO) was created following WW2 after the vast removal of artefacts from particular countries (Patt, 2002). Unfortunately, this convention has not been ratified by many countries, especially those from the European Union, due to their world famous art markets and museums (this was only ratified by England in 2017). Unfortunately this prevention also does not specifically protect tribal artefacts, offering less security over New Zealand’s Māori antiques as they would have to be then dealt with privately within foreign courts (UNESCO, 1970).

Secondly, The International Institute for the Unification of Private Law (UNIDROIT) contains four mentions regarding the legal protection of ingenious cultural property, primarily within Article 3 (8) which states “a claim for restitution of a sacred or communally important cultural objects belonging to and used by a tribal or indigenous community in a Contracting State as part of that community’s traditional or ritual use, shall be subject to the time limitation applicable to public collections.” (UNIDROIT, 1950).

A past legal case which explains this debate well is the Attorney General of New Zealand vs. Ortiz (1984). A pair of Māori door panels was sold illegally from New Zealand to an art collector in Switzerland. The door panels were later sold in London. New Zealand attempted to bring action of repatriation, stating the Historic Articles Act of 1962, claiming ownership over the item, where it states that the object “shall be forfeited by her majesty”. However, England and Wales had not yet ratified UNESCO, so did not have to enforce a foreign sovereignty’s penal law (UNODOC, 2019). Whilst the Court of Appeal and House of Lords were sympathetic to New Zealand’s attempt to retrieve their national heritage, they still held that only if an article was seized (not just illegally exported) ownership would be transferred to the state (ibid, 2019).

The case of Ortiz sparked international recognition and subsequently a change in the law within New Zealand brought stricter penalties to those who attempt to illegally export native artefacts from the country. The government’s next step is to make another request for the return of the doors; the result is most likely to be positive now England ratifies the UNESCO Convention. However, with many countries still not signing up to UNESCO or UNIDROIT, and with many legal loopholes within these codes, can “westerners” acquire and display artefacts from other countries without contributing to this illegal art trade and reproducing “colonialist narratives?” (Tharoor, 2015).

There is no doubt that people are curious about New Zealand, however, to help prevent the unlawful removal of cultural objects we must respect and recognise the spiritual and ancestral connection the Māori have over their antiques. Those involved within the law are eager to expect national and international legal reforms and repatriation through policy initiatives over the protection of property internationally.

Reference List

Attorney of New Zealand. (1984). Attorney­ General of New Zealand v. Ortiz. [online]. Available at: http://uniset.ca/other/cs6/1984AC1.html

Boos, G. The Domestic and International Protection of Maori Cultural Property. [online]. Available at: https://www.otago.ac.nz/law/research/journals/otago036336.pdf.

Blundell, S. (2012). Artefact scandal a salutary lesson. [online]. Available at: https://www.noted.co.nz/archive/archive-listener-nz-2012/artefact-scandal-a-salutary-lesson

Māori Antiquities Act (1901). Available at: http://www.nzlii.org/nz/legis/hist_act/maa19011ev1901n21298/

Paterson, R. (2001). Claiming Possession of the Material Cultural Property of Indigenous Peoples. Connecticut Journal of International Law, 16,.
Patt, J. (2002). The Need to Revamp Current Domestic Protection for Cultural Property. Northerwestern University Law Review, 96 3 1219.

Protected Objects Act (1976). Available at: http://www.legislation.govt.nz/act/public/1975/0041/latest/DLM432116.html

Tharoor, K. (2015). Museums and looted art: the ethical dilemma of preserving world cultures. [online]. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2015/jun/29/museums-looting-art-artefacts-world-culture.

The International Institute for the Unification of Private Law (UNIDROIT). (1950). UNIDROIT Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects. [online]. Available at: https://www.unidroit.org/english/conventions/1995culturalproperty/1995culturalproperty-e.pdf

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). (1970). Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. [online]. Available at: http://www.unesco.org/eri/la/convention.asp?KO=13039&language=E

UNODOC. (2019). Attorney-General of New Zealand v. Ortiz et al. [online]. Available at: https://sherloc.unodc.org/cld/case-law-doc/traffickingculturalpropertycrimetype/gbr/1983/attorney-general_of_new_zealand_v._ortiz_et_al._.html?lng=en

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