Examination of Witness (Questions 452
TUESDAY 23 MAY 2000
Chairman: General, I should like to welcome
you here today, both to Britain and to our House of Commons. As
you will recall, certainly from our point of view, when we were
in Rome we had an extremely valuable meeting with you and your
colleagues which is why we have asked you to attend here today
and why we are very grateful to you for attending because of the
important information you can provide. Could I say to members
of the public how sorry I am that we are meeting in these extremely
cramped conditions. The authorities of the House of Commons are
a law unto themselves. If I had been consulted we would not be
meeting in these cramped conditions and in this unsatisfactory
situation. Could I explain, also, General, that this being the
House of Commons some of my colleagues have other duties. My colleague,
Mr Maxton, is himself the Chairman of another Committee so he
will have to leave to take charge of it just before half past
ten and other colleagues may come in or out but this is the general
practice of the British Parliament. It is in no sense a discourtesy
either to yourself or to the other visitors who are acting as
witnesses at this inquiry later today. You are very well aware
of the areas of our activity and therefore I do not need to provide
any introduction to you. I am going now to call on the first questioner.
This is the first time that we have had a bilingual meeting of
this Committee so we are all working out how to conduct it but
thank you very much. Mr Fearn will ask the first question.
452. Good morning. Can I say myself how we enjoyed
the visit to your country and how helpful you were to us. If I
may start the questioning. Can you tell us what role you think
that London has in the art market of illicitly traded property?
(Major General Conforti) Thank you. Mr Chairman, I
would like to thank you for your very kind invite and I would
like to thank also the Members of the Select Committee. I am honoured
to be part of this Committee today. I understand perfectly the
reasons why some of the colleagues will have to absent themselves
every now and again. To go back to your first question. In my
opinion Italy is one of the countries with the highest density
of cultural heritage. England, with its equally important heritage,
is also one of the largest markets in the world. I believe that
it will be necessary to create a link between England and Italy
to increase the awareness and co-operation between the two countries.
The illegal movement of art works is expanding rapidly mainly
because of the profits behind the trade. According to the results
of a survey conducted by a leading British magazine in 1994 or
1995 the profit deriving from the illegal movement of works of
arts is second only to the profits of drug trafficking. This is
where the exigency is born to create a co-operation between two
countries who already have an established and good relationship
as far as the organised crime is concerned.
453. Could I ask then, when we met you last
time you did say there was not a great deal of co-operation between
yourself and the auction houses of cultural articles here in London.
Is that still the case?
(Major General Conforti) I would like to say that
there is some kind of co-operation between us and the auction
houses. To start with, there is a lot of mutual respect. I am
perfectly sure and convinced that the auction houses do their
work but their work perhaps is not keeping in consideration the
needs and exigencies of the individual countries. I do say this
on the basis of an assessment where the 94 per cent of unresolved
cases do have the auction house as a counterpart. The auction
houses, whether willingly or unwillinglyI am sure in most
of the cases it is unwillinglyare at the centre of a triangle
where works of arts that are stolen in a certain country via the
illegal movement do arrive in England, in London. In some cases
after a cleansing period they do find their way back to Italy,
unless they migrate towards the United States or Japan. My statement
is based on proven circumstances and facts.
454. General, perhaps if I can ask you about
the Italian export laws. Do you think that Italian export laws
if they were not enforced in the same way would make it easier
for the trade to take place in cultural property?
(Major General Conforti) You did ask about the Italian
export law, I would like to answer this part first. Italy is very
much like England and it abides by the same EC Directive. Italy,
like England, is a boundary country. Italy controls the works
of art that cross the border towards other countries and, as foreseen
by the EC Directive, certainly I do hope that England does exercise
the same kind of controls. I do agree on the second part of your
question. Perhaps we should review some parts of our export laws
because perhaps some of the most restrictive rules entail the
possibility of illegal trade. I prefer in particular to deal with
the illegal exports organised by the very owner of the works of
art in their search for a more profitable market who abandon Italy,
in a way, without having the proper export licences or sometimes
do export illegally thanks to the auction house middle men. They
use some of the most prominent English forwarding agents, as happened
quite recently in Imperia, where soon after the border a British
lorry was stopped and it was illegally transporting a work of
art. The work of art had not been issued with a licence. That
is why I did put a proposal forward to our Ministry that the documentation
that we have in Italy, and that is called notification, which
is a piece of paper that confirms ownership to the work of art,
would be considered valid on a European level and not only in
Italy. So I do agree with the need to review some points of our
law. That is why I do firmly believe in bilateral relationships
because they are a tool to hone or to assess better the best strategy
within the spirit of the EC Directive without undermining the
laws of the sovereign states. On the contrary, we would like to
co-ordinate these laws.
455. Do you think that law enforcement would
be more effective if there was a comprehensive international database
of stolen and illegally exported arts?
(Major General Conforti) Without any doubt. Without
a doubt, yes. I do sincerely hope that such a tool can be established
and we are already doing some work towards it because the branch
of the Carabinieri already has a database. There is co-ordination
and co-operation with the same department in France and Interpol.
It is a very good system. We do have a co-operation with the Art
Loss Register which is based on mutual respect and the desire
to co-operate towards a common goal. I am convinced if we want
to fight this phenomenon the database is the most effective tool.
456. Just for the record perhaps you could remind
us how many officers you have in the Carabinieri who deal with
(Major General Conforti) Since 1969 in Italy there
has been a branch of the Carabinieri, and the General is the commanding
officer, which is specifically allocated to the works of art.
It is managed from Rome, from an office that looks after all the
administrative stuff. There is an operational bureau which of
course follows the situation at national and international level
and establishes the strategy. We have a database of stolen art
works which at present lists over 920,000 items which have come
from heritages from all over the world. The news and information
comes through Interpol. In Rome there is another branch which
is organised in three sections: fine art, antiques, archaeology,
artifacts and forgeries. There are seven offices in the more risky
areas from Palermo to Milan. The Cultural Ministry in Italy, due
to the focus that the Italians do place on our heritage and works
of art, within this yearwithin the year 2000will
increase this structure with additional branches, especially along
the border. At the same time it is looking to expand the database.
This is why I would like to thank the Select Committee for its
invitation today. This is a moment when the Italian Government
is doing the utmost to protect the cultural and artistic heritage
that belongs not only to Italy but that we consider to be global.
Of course, the individual effort of an individual country is not
enough especially if we see it in a global context. It has to
be supported by the co-operation of other nations.
457. Thank you. Before I call Mr Fraser to ask
a question could I follow up what Claire Ward has asked you. Clearly
you have a very formidable force available to seek to deal with
these problems. Is it possible for you to tell us, and if it is
not possible publicly perhaps you can tell us privately, what
budget is available to you to conduct these activities?
(Major General Conforti) It is not restricted or privileged
information. It is only a matter of adding up a few figures. Roughly,
my branch is partly funded by the Ministry of Culture and partly
by the head office of the Carabinieri. I believe that our annual
budget requires about 30 billion lira per year but the figure
is based on the offices and branches which are in existence today.
They do not cover, of course, future expansion of the branch.
This is a rough and general figure. Of course this includes also
the judiciary work. We are self-sufficient.
458. Good morning. There are many allegations
that have been made with regard to the illicit trade in antiquities
and as a Committee we read each day about these issues and people
are sending us information about things that concern them. Therefore,
I feel it is very important that we look specifically at the methods
you employ to investigate the trade that you describe to us. Can
you tell us about the process you undertake to recover works of
art that you think are allegedly being traded in the United Kingdom
through auction houses?
(Major General Conforti) To begin with it is important
to remember that our branch is carrying out judiciary and policing
operations and as such of course we do use the same procedures
and strategies adopted by all the police forces all over the world.
In this specific field, however, on the basis of a specialisation,
a knowledge that is obtained through a selection of personnel
and training. I am of course just following what is happening
and using all the methods and procedures that are allowed by law
for the penetration of the organisations in order to follow their
behaviour and pinpoint and finalise individual responsibilities.
Of course, having the knowledge of the routes taken by the illegal
trade, checking all the documentation, especially the banking
documents. One of the major problems in this phenomenon is the
money laundering or money recycling. Therefore, it is important
that the personnel is highly trained. However, it is still within
the limits of what is allowed by the law, naturally in full respect
of other countries' laws and rules.
459. Thank you. One of the examples you gave
us, which I will not describe in detail but I would like just
to touch on, was a case which I believe you said has taken you
five or six years to move forward on. Can you tell me about the
approaches you make to the British auction houses? Do you go direct
or do you go via the British police?
(Major General Conforti) Sometimes we have a direct
approach with the auction houses but as far as I remember in very
few circumstances. I must say that in the case of Sotheby's we
did find a great degree of co-operation, especially when they
received in London pieces coming from a collection whose export
was still subject to an inquiry in Italy. In that case, the Board
of Sotheby's, blocked the sale of the works of art. Sotheby's
did not allow it to go ahead, the sale of the piece of work, until
they received the authorisation to do so from the General and
his branch. Generally, our approach with the auction houses is
via Interpol or Scotland Yard and Scotland Yard is for the preventative
action. I would like to explain further. When we analyse the auction
house's catalogues or analyse scientific documentation, we become
aware of the presence of sales which have happened already of
works of art which have been illegally exported from Italy. In
that case we apply, through Interpol, and therefore Scotland Yard
to inquire whether the work of art has been sold or is in the
process of being sold and how did it arrive in the country, who
commissioned the purchase and who authorised the sale. In Italy,
auction houses are bound to give these details to the police whilst
here Scotland Yard does whatever it can possibly do but, of course,
Scotland Yard has to comply with local laws and regulations. Therefore
we are never told who commissioned the purchase and we are never
told who the buyer is unless we are certain ourselves. In that
particular case we had to resort to the judicial request. As a
matter of fact a judicial request should be the conclusive part
of an inquiry so that the magistrate in charge can assess. Unfortunately
we had to make a second inquiry due mainly to the lack of these
explanations. This is why the judicial requests tend to last for
a long time.