Theft of South African Artifacts and Heritage Objects

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21 Jan 2008

The Minister of Arts & Culture, Dr. Z. Pallo Jordan has expressed deep concern about the increasing theft of artifacts and heritage objects from the museums, galleries, churches in South Africa.

He was responding to a question raised in Parliament.

“Unfortunately, the Ministry of Arts & Culture does not have specific figures on how many artifacts and/or heritage objects have been stolen from the museums, galleries, castles, churches and any other site in any of the province.

“This is largely because thefts of objects are reported directly to the South African Police Service. Unfortunately, they, too, are not in a position to assist in listing the objects as theft of heritage objects are not recorded as a separate theft category,” said Minister Jordan.

Significantly, the Department of Arts & Culture has an inconclusive list of missing, lost and stolen items from its heritage institutions.

This cites artifacts that have been stolen from 1990 on wards. They include many military artifacts predating the Second World War and some from the First World War.

“Many of these are ceremonial daggers, swords and medals that are invaluable and have an international currency. In fact, they can be traded anywhere in the world.

“Unfortunately, many of these item have not been recovered,” said Minister Jordan.

The objects vary vastly in their value. For example, the cheapest item is a tray cloth valued at R30 which was stolen in 1995 from the Northern Flagship Museum. It has not yet been recovered.

Significantly, a replica of Chief Albert Luthuli’s wrist watch which was stolen in 2004 was recovered later that year.  

Interpol has assisted us in recovering some invaluable heritage items.

In a noteworthy development, a forum has been established consisting of numerous stakeholders, including the South African Police Services (SAPS), the Department of Arts and Culture (DAC), South African Heritage Resource Agency (SAHRA) and Interpol. The purpose is to wage a war against crime syndicates and other people who engage in theft of heritage objects and artifacts.

“Of course, effective control of illegal trafficking in heritage resources depends on an exhaustive list of what those resources are.

“Both national legislation as well as international instruments to which South Africa is signatory obliges government to develop such a list,” said Minister Jordan.

At present, the South African Resource Agency (SAHRA) is conducting an audit of heritage assets which is at its beginning phase.

Upon completion, the information will then be accessible to various users including the Safety and Security Agencies and the Border Controls, thus enabling the Police in limiting the crime.

For further information contact Sandile Memela, Spokesperson for the Ministry of Arts & Culture at 082 800 3750 or Premi Appalraju, Media liaison Officer at 082 903 6778