Earlier this week, the International Council of Museums (ICOM) published a new Red List featuring Brazilian cultural objects at risk. The publication of the Red List is timely, following protestors’ storming of Brazilian government buildings last month in a chaotic scene that resulted in damage to many important artworks. These riots, coupled with other social uprisings in recent years and disasters like the fire that destroyed millions of artifacts at Rio de Janeiro’s National Museum in 2018, have left Brazil’s cultural heritage vulnerable to theft and illegal export. ICOM’s Red List provides law enforcement and those working in the cultural sector – such as museums, private collectors, and auction houses – with a toolkit to identify the types of Brazilian cultural objects that are most at risk.
Although Brazil has strong cultural heritage laws dating back to 1937 and is party to numerous agreements with other countries combatting the illicit trafficking of cultural goods, Brazil’s museums, archaeological sites, and religious institutions are frequently targeted by smugglers who provide a pipeline to collectors and researchers abroad who wish to acquire or study Brazilian cultural heritage. Accordingly, the categories of Brazilian heritage identified as being at risk in the Red List are broad, including a wide range of works on paper, archaeological and ethnological artifacts, and sacred and religious art. Of particular note is the Red List’s inclusion of paleontological artifacts, ranging from vertebrate and invertebrate fossils to paleobotanical remains and trace fossils like footprints, nests, and burrows – reflecting a growing trend among source countries to protect paleontological materials as belonging to the nation’s cultural patrimony.
Dr. Jennifer A. Morris is an Attorney at Cultural Heritage Partners and leads the firm’s Art and Museum Law practice. She regularly advises museums, collectors, auction houses, and other cultural institutions on governance, due diligence, ownership issues, and trade controls.