HONOLULU — Stolen art is big business. According to Interpol, the traffic in stolen art is worth about $5 billion a year, about as much as the illegal trade in arms and drugs. Accurate estimates of the trade are hard to come by, but this figure is almost certainly low. After all, how does one value one-of-a-kind historical and cultural objects? In those cases, price tags are meaningless. The uniqueness of these objects makes them even more treasured by collectors. Typically, the only constraint they face is the size of their bank account and their readiness to pay.

This month, the rules will change for Japanese collectors. On Dec. 9, the Convention on the Prevention of the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property goes into effect in Japan. The convention, adopted by UNESCO’s General Conference in November 1970, is the first global legal instrument that protects cultural property against pillage and illegal sales. Although Japan will be the 95th country to ratify the convention, signing on is a big deal. First, Japan is one of the world’s wealthiest countries and the home of many collectors. It is a critical node in the international art network. Second, Japan has an enormous amount of stolen art and cultural artifacts.

Much of the damage was done during Japan’s imperial period, when colonial administrators looted the lands they controlled. According to the Cultural Properties Administration of Korea, there are at least 34,157 cultural objects of Korean origin in Japan — and those are only the objects that are known to be there. When objects that are thought to have been stolen are included, the number more than doubles to 75,266 objects. According to another estimate, Japanese colonial officials and private collectors took at least 100,000 artifacts and cultural treasures from the end of the 19th century until Japan’s defeat in 1945. There are more than 1,000 Korean artifacts at the Tokyo National Museum, more than 800 at the Osaka City Museum of Ceramics and more than 2,100 books in the Kyoto University Library.

Korea is not the only victim of the Japanese. According to an investigation by a commission established by the Ministry of Education of China in 1945, at least 3.6 million rare books, calligraphy works, paintings and other antiques were looted by the Japanese Army during its rampage through China.

It’s a grim situation. Worse still is the loss of a nation’s history. “Koreans have to go to Japan to see many of their own cultural assets, as it is the largest holder of Korean cultural objects outside of Korea,” explained Kwan Cheeyon, a Seoul-based curator and art historian.

Although stolen art has enormous value — emotional, cultural and economic — it has only been a minor irritant in the Japan-South Korea relationship. Political and economic issues took precedence when the two governments first began discussing normalization. At that time, money for development figured more prominently in Seoul’s calculations than did cultural artifacts. Still, Tokyo did return over 1,300 articles, including porcelains and documents, to South Korea when the two countries resumed diplomatic relations in 1965. New attitudes in South Korea — prompted by rising affluence and confidence — as well as increasing attention to the need to protect cultural properties have spurred South Korea to take a more aggressive line in reclaiming its lost history. The growing emphasis on cultural and grassroots ties between the two countries has also helped raise the profile of the issue in the bilateral relationship.

The issue will also dog Japanese efforts to normalize relations with North Korea. Reportedly, during the historic September summit, North Korea requested that Japan return cultural artifacts seized during the colonial period and compensate North Korea for the loss. The Japan-DPRK Pyongyang Declaration issued at the meeting between Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il refers explicitly to “the issue of cultural property.”

Tokyo’s decision to ratify the UNESCO convention will help foreign governments make the case that Japan has a moral obligation to make serious efforts to repatriate stolen property. It will also give petitioners legal support when they demand the return of stolen property. But the law will only have an impact if officials are ready to enforce it. Without aggressive attempts to track down violators, collectors will go unpunished. And since most such collectors tend to be individuals of means, there will be considerable reluctance to go after them. Also, as noted, many stolen artifacts are already in public collections. Requiring their return will involve considerable public embarrassment as well as economic losses to prestigious public and private entities. None of this bodes well for wiping the slate clean.

Japan’s initial reluctance to join the 1970 convention is ironic given Tokyo’s awareness of the need to protect cultural heritage. In 1871, the Meiji government introduced a decree on the protection of cultural objects, and in 1888 the government set up the Provisional Bureau for the Nation-Wide Investigation of Treasures, leading to the establishment of the Tokyo Imperial Museum. In the postwar era, the 1950 Act on the Protection of Cultural Properties has served as the foundation of efforts to protect such artifacts. In an additional irony, Korean legislation to protect national treasures is modeled after the Japanese law.

Nor can Japan be faulted for only focusing on its own cultural properties. In 1989, Tokyo established the Japanese Trust Fund for the Preservation of World Cultural Heritage within UNESCO, which has been engaged in cultural heritage preservation activities. The Trust Fund was set up to preserve tangible cultural heritage, such as historic monuments and archaeological vestiges of great value. By the end of 1999, Japan had contributed $35.66 million to the fund, and preservation projects have been implemented at 18 sites in 14 countries.

Joining the 1970 convention is an important step forward for Japan. Tokyo’s adherence to the legal regime should have an impact on dealers, collectors and traders. Moreover, a readiness to see that the convention is honored and enforced will help ease some of the tensions that have dogged Tokyo’s relations with its neighbors. Returning seized and stolen artifacts could help convince those nations that Japan understands the enormity of the misdeeds that were performed during the colonial period.

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