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UNESCO Convention Turns 50

, cultural property, international, art law

Half a Century of Fighting Illicit Trafficking of Cultural Property

This year, the 1970 UNESCO Convention quietly turned 50. The 1995 UNIDROIT Convention that supplemented the 1970 Convention with private law relating to the international trade of art turned 25. While the in-person celebrations and conference did not happen, efforts to prevent the traffic in cultural property have been ongoing. Investigations, prosecutions and trainings of law enforcement, customs and court officers continue as do the efforts to circumvent national patrimony laws and introduce illicit exported objects into the stream of commerce.

Join the Center for Art Law for a conversation about domestic, international, and interdisciplinary efforts to curb the illicit art trade with Robert Wittman, a former Federal Bureau of Investigation special and the founder of a Security and Recovery Consulting and Karin Orenstein, an Assistant US Attorney who serves as a member of the interagency Cultural Heritage Coordinating Committee on the international and interdisciplinary efforts to curb the illicit art trade.

Robert K. Wittman joined the FBI as a Special Agent in 1988. As a result of specialized training in art, antiques, jewelry and gem identification, he served as the FBI’s investigative expert involving cultural property crime. During his 20 year FBI career he recovered more than $300 million worth of stolen art and cultural property which resulted in numerous prosecutions and convictions. As a result of his unique experience Mr. Wittman coauthored the FBI Cultural Property Investigative Manual in 2001. In 2005, he created the FBI’s rapid deployment national Art Crime Team (ACT). Mr. Wittman has represented the United States throughout the world conducting investigations and instructing international police and museums in recovery and use of high value asset security techniques. In 2010, Mr. Wittman penned his New York Times bestselling memoir “PRICELESS: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World’s Stolen Treasures.” His second book, “THE DEVIL’S DIARY: Alfred Rosenberg and the Stolen Secrets of the Third Reich” is a worldwide best seller published in 29 languages in more than 30 countries. He was featured in the History Channel series “Lost History’ and recently filmed an investigation into the lost artifacts of General George Custer’s brigade at the battle of Little Big Horn in Montana. Mr. Wittman has served as an expert witness in multiple state and federalcourt cases. Mr. Wittman is now president of Robert Wittman Inc. the firm specializes in consulting in art matters which include expert witness testimony, investigation and collection management.

Karin Orenstein is an Assistant U.S. Attorney (AUSA) in the Eastern District of New York where she is the U.S. Attorney’s Office’s first Cultural Property Coordinator. She joined the Office as a criminal prosecutor in 2008 and, since 2013, has been an Asset Forfeiture AUSA with a focus on pursuing, forfeiting and returning stolen art and artifacts. As a criminal AUSA, Karin prosecuted a network of dealers and a collector who transacted in Egyptian antiquities United States v. Khouli. As a civil AUSA, Karin works with criminal AUSAs to investigate cultural property crimes and handles her own civil forfeiture actions against cultural property.  She has  brought and successfully resolved multiple civil forfeiture actions, including cases against Egyptian antiquities; Italian antiquities including a fragment of one of the “painted tombs” of Paestum, Italy and a Roman marble sarcophagus; a rare Mongolian dinosaur skull; a Picasso painting stolen from a French museum. She is best known for prosecuting United States v. 450 Ancient Cuneiform Tablets, which involved the consensual forfeiture of over 3,000 illegally imported Iraqi artifacts purchased by Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., factual admissions and an agreement by Hobby Lobby to implement improved training and compliance measures.  All of these cases resulted in the return of cultural property to their countries of origin. Karin is recognized as a leader and expert in the area of cultural property trafficking.  She has trained foreign law enforcement officers in workshops held in Italy, Greece and Latvia, trained agents and attorneys at workshops hosted by the Smithsonian, and recorded on-demand trainings for the Department of Justice.  She serves as a member of the interagency Cultural Property Coordinating Committee convened by the U.S. Department of State, where she sits on the Cultural Antiquities Task Force and Technology Working Group.  Earlier this year, her comment, “Risking Criminal Liability in Cultural Property Transactions” was published by the North Carolina International Law Journal. Karin is the recipient of the Department of Justice Director’s Award for Excellence as a Civil AUSA and the Stimson Medal from the New York City Bar which honors AUSAs for integrity, fair play, and superior commitment to the public good.

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