Brazil’s Red List gives green light to federal action on heritage smuggling

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More than 1,000 cultural artefacts in Brazil are currently registered as missing. Many are likely to have been smuggled out of the country and secretly sold to illicit collectors via the black market. So say the authors of an “urgent” new list of Brazilian objects at risk.

Launching the Red List at the Museum of the Portuguese Language in São Paulo on 14 February, Margareth Menezes, Brazil’s new minister of culture and a former popular singer, said that halting the illegal flow of heritage items across Brazil’s borders is one of the country’s “biggest challenges”.

“This type of organised crime takes away our culture,” Menezes said.

Many of the items leaving Brazil are ancient and have remained in the country sometimes for millennia. Why is the issue suddenly so pressing?

Renata Motta, the chair of the Brazilian Icom committee, at the launch of Brazil’s Red List

Photo: Ciete Silverio

“The past four years have been very difficult within the cultural sphere in Brazil,” says Renata Motta, the chair of the Brazilian national committee of the International Council of Museums (Icom) and the director of the Museum of the Portuguese Language. She is referring to former president Jair Bolsonaro’s policy of dismantling Brazil’s ministry of culture within a week of taking office in January 2019, a decision that “dramatically affected Brazil’s cultural security”, Motta says. “We have very good laws, but we have a hard time implementing them,” she says. “The Red List arrives at a good moment because it comes just as we have seen a change in national government.”

Since the contested inauguration of returning President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva on 1 January, the department has been re-established. The ministry will host a seminar in April which will explore how the Red List can be used by Brazilian museums.

“The dismantling of heritage protection has caused unimaginable damage,” Menezes said at the launch of the list. “President Lula understands this. The ministry is open and supports all tools that will protect culture.”

A Red List for a contested democracy

A Red List is a visual database that helps local law enforcement officers to track what kind of objects are most at risk of being illicitly exported. It is designed to work in conjunction with databases that track which objects have already been stolen and is usually initiated by a national Icom committee with the support of the country’s government. Recent Icom-published Red Lists have been created on an emergency footing. Icom has concentrated on conflict zones—the latest lists published have been published for Ukraine, Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.

The Ukrainian Red List was published in October 2022, six months after Russia’s invasion of the country. It was created in co-ordination with the Ukrainian Ministry of Culture and Information Policy in response to widespread concern that museums in the east of the country were being systematically looted by invading Russian forces, including, notably, the plundering of the Kherson Regional Art Museum.

Brazil, by contrast, is not at war. But the reign of the populist leader Bolsonaro acted as an almighty stress test for the country’s democratically elected institutions. On 8 January, Bolsonaro’s supporters reacted to his loss in the presidential elections by storming Brazil’s Congress, Supreme Court and the Planalto presidential palace in scenes reminiscent of the 6 January 2021 attack on the US Capitol after the voting out of former president Donald Trump. Numerous Brazilian heritage pieces and historic works of art were vandalised during the attacks. Rogério Carvalho, a curator at the presidential palace, said in a statement at the time: “The value of what was destroyed is incalculable.”

Roberta Saraiva Coutinho, the director of Icom Brazil, tells The Art Newspaper: “This is a political matter. For a Red List to work, for it to be taken seriously, you need a ministry of culture who can pressure the ministry of justice to talk to the ministry of foreign relations. When you have no ministry of culture, the whole chain of communication breaks down.”

Anauene Dias Soares, a lawyer specialising in heritage crime, says that, while the project has immediate benefits in helping police departments and border forces, Brazil’s federal government is still poorly equipped to deal with the scale of the issue. “Until five years ago, we didn’t have a specific department within the federal system that liaised with organisations like Unesco on heritage trafficking,” she says.

“In some Brazilian states, there are specific departments within the police, but we still don’t have a division of the federal police dealing with culture,” she adds. “My hope is that this Red List will help to catalyse a renewed effort to address this kind of crime.”

According to a database overseen by the Instituto do Patrimônio Histórico e Artístico Nacional, 975 objects belonging to Brazil are currently listed as stolen. A separate database, ID-Art, launched in 2021 and overseen by Interpol, tells a similarly bleak story. The database lists 385 stolen pieces, including sacred works of art, objects belonging to contemporary indigenous communities, and historic books and manuscripts.

But Brazil’s Red List differs from other lists Icom has devised in one specific way: the preponderance of palaeolithic items. “Within Brazilian palaeontology, we see fossils removed regularly, but on a small scale,” Motta says. “It’s not necessarily a big black-market operation, but it’s a frequent one.”

Palaeontology most at risk

Soares says that, with 33,000 archaeological sites in Brazil—4,000 new sites were registered last year alone—palaeontology is Brazil’s biggest risk area. And there remains little international coordination when it comes to the restitution of such items.

“We can see fossils that have almost certainly originated from Brazil in European museums but, because there is no documentation, it’s hard to force their return,” says Soares. “It’s the same with ethnographic materials; we know, academically, they are from Brazil. But we can’t prove legally that they have been appropriated or stolen.”

In May 2022 France returned 998 fossils to Brazil after a nine-year investigation to establish their origin. The palaeontological items, which included dinosaur, turtle and crocodile fossils from the Cretaceous era, were discovered at Le Havre port in France in a shipping container that had arrived from Brazil. They had been transported from a basin near the town of Crato in the north-eastern state of Ceará. They have now been returned—but only after languishing in storage at various French natural history museums for almost a decade. “We would prefer not to go through legal procedures to secure the return of such items, but to engage in an open dialogue between institutions,” Soares says. “It’s less problematic.”

The Red List will not just help Brazil to stem the flow of priceless artefacts over its borders but, Coutinho hopes, help the country to possibly regain some of the items it has already lost.

“The most important role of the Red List is that it informs museums and academics from around the world on questions of restitution,” says Coutinho. “It tells them that certain artefacts should never have left Brazil. If Brazil had a Red List 50 years ago, many things may very well have been different.”

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