“Heritage belongs in the hands of the rightful owner”

Heritage inspector Nico Schouten and customs officer Ans Ferwerda highlight the case of some seized archaeological objects originating from Ukraine. “Customs acts as our eyes and ears.”

Items of great cultural-historic and scientific value – objects that often may not be transported and handled freely – are also subject to customs surveillance. Customs officers who encounter such goods are generally quick to call in the Information and Heritage Inspectorate. This is what happened in 2018 when Ans Ferwerda discovered archaeological excavations in post items from Ukraine in an Amsterdam sorting centre. Soon afterwards she officially handed over the collector’s items to the Ukrainian ambassador for further examination by experts from the National Archaeological Institute in Kiev.

Ferwerda has worked in surveillance, in the Postal & Courier department, for some years. “In principle, I monitor all our non-fiscal focus areas: from counterfeits to medicines, from flora and fauna to narcotics”, she explains. “Each country of origin has its own different specific risks. The focus with goods from Ukraine is on cigarettes: non-duty-paid and counterfeit. So I was surprised when I saw scan images of a postal package from that country showing a row of sharp points. I immediately fished out the envelope concerned and examined it physically. A custom’s statement was enclosed, stating that the goods were ‘souvenirs’. They turned out to be rusty metal objects, packed carefully in paper – they looked old, but not valuable. They just looked like things that a tourist could have bought on a market. Nevertheless, I thought it was an unusual item, and I wanted one of our experts to take a look. The colleague – a walking encyclopaedia on heritage – then registered it with the Information and Heritage Inspectorate. This is what got the ball rolling. And guess what? Within the next few weeks, I came across another two postal items, almost identical, and with similar contents.”

Eyes and ears
“Every year we receive about 30 to 40 generally very valuable reports from Customs”, says Nico Schouten, who works for the Inspectorate. “Customs acts as our eyes and ears and helps us to fulfil our mission: making sure that items that are important for the cultural identity and historical consciousness of a country or a people return to where they belong. We do this based on the national Heritage Act, which is an elaboration of the UNESCO 1970 Convention. Ukraine is also party to the international convention, which means that cultural items from that country may only be imported into the Netherlands if they were lawfully exported. As no export permit was issued for the items that Ans found in the post, we contacted the Ukrainian authorities – the embassy in The Hague. They in turn got in touch with experts in their own country. After seeing the photographic evidence, they said that they would like to examine the various objects to confirm their authenticity. As the ambassador planned to travel to Kiev in the near future, we gave the goods to him. We made a festive moment of the process of handing them over, by Ans and our director, at the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science.”

Completely unaware
“Naturally, I thought it was fun and an honour to be invited to this”, says Ferwerda. “It shows how our organisations interact: using short lines and with respect and appreciation for one another’s work. This is what makes our working partnership so great. We usually receive rapid and extensive feedback about findings that we pass on. That motivates me and my colleagues enormously: you get to hear the results of your efforts, why you do it all. In this case, I soon heard that I had intercepted a set of arrowheads and spearheads, the head of a decorative axe and two signet rings – all made of iron, dating from the early Middle Ages and originating from central to south Ukraine. It felt good knowing that they have been returned to their rightful owner.”

“It seems that the Dutch addressees were collectors”, according to Schouten. “They declared having purchased the various items on auction sites. We see that here too internet is making international trade easier. People search for treasure all over the world, and the items that are found have an enormous attraction to many people. Sometimes they may just be well-meaning amateurs, but there are also cases of wilful plundering. These purchasers were completely unaware; they did not know about the regulations and had no idea that they were contravening them. They were immediately prepared to relinquish their purchases, because they did not want to cooperate in dubious trade.”

Schouten and his colleagues are pleased with the alertness of Ferwerda and other Customs officers. “Such discoveries show that they are well-informed about matters relating to heritage. And that their intuition is well-developed; they sense when goods are suspect. In particular the factual knowledge of the experts is at a high level. For this group we organise frequent refresher days about current trends and phenomena – about art theft from conflict zones, for example. At such courses, these people always demonstrate an exceptional willingness to learn.”

Heritage is a permanent aspect of regular surveillance of the cross-border flow of goods. Customs also regularly carries out specific inspection activities – lasting several days – named Pandora, at postal and courier companies, where they are joined by the Inspectorate and sometimes the police. The most recent one was in the autumn of 2018. Schouten: “It is eminently commendable that Customs finds time and capacity for such a specific campaign about heritage items. Particularly when you think about the trade volumes and the many risks the organisation faces. We see this as a sign that Customs takes its role as gatekeeper very seriously.”

This interview also appeared in our recently issued overview ‘Dutch Customs in 2018’. Click here to read the full publication.

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