collecting jewellery

UNESCO 1970: what does it mean for me?

You may have heard of it: ‘UNESCO 1970’. But what is that exactly, and what does it mean for owning, buying and selling of traditional jewellery from North Africa and Southwest Asia? In this article, I’ll walk you through the main aspects. Disclaimer up front: as I am a jewellery historian, this is not to be taken as legal advice. What I aim to do here, is give you a starting point to make your own informed choices. So there. Let’s dive into this convention!

What is UNESCO 1970? First some details. ‘UNESCO 1970’s full name is the Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. [1] It was adopted in 1970 by the members of the United Nations. Its aim is, as the title suggests, to prevent the illegal trade in cultural heritage. After the Second World War, it became increasingly clear that cultural heritage was looted and sold for profit on a massive scale, as a result of which many cultural treasures left their countries of origin. And that is not just statues and sculptures and paintings and frescoes: jewellery is a favourite, too. It’s portable, valuable and almost guaranteed to have a buyer. ‘Okay,’ I hear you thinking, ‘but that is about ancient jewellery. Mine is max a hundred years old, give or take, and it is still being sold today!’ You’d be right, and I’ll get to that in a bit – where it concerns antiques, not antiquities, is where it gets interesting.

Is UNESCO 1970 law or legally binding? No, it is not: it is a convention. Up until now, a little over 100 member states of the United Nations have ratified the convention, meaning they explicitly undersign its goal. That still does not make it law: every country has different ways of embedding the goals of the convention into their own national legislation on heritage and its import and export. Here lies an important criterion in general. You will sometimes find advice stating that anything exported before 1970 (the date of the convention) is presumed legal. But that point of view ignores the existing laws of the countries of both export and import: Egypt, for example, already legally prohibited the export of antiquities without written approval in 1912 and revised that law in 1951. Proving something left the country legally therefore requires establishing a chain of provenance dating all the way back to 1912. So, always check both your local legislation and the laws of the country you are exporting something from if you are into ancient beads, for example.

What does UNESCO 1970 mean for collectors of traditional jewellery? Under most legislation [2], exporting and importing jewellery of 50 – 100 years old is completely legal. [3] It has not been looted or stolen: jewellery like this has been sold in large numbers from the 1960s onwards, and in some cases even earlier. It was readily available, and continues to be sold internationally today. It also does not qualify as an antiquity or sometimes even as an antique – yet. Items that are 100 years or older however, may fall under legislation for antiques.

What do you need to check in advance? I would advise to start by informing yourself about legislation in the country you are importing jewellery into. This includes the definition of an antique (this varies from 100 to 250 years depending on where you are – most traditional jewellery is younger, but remember a piece from the 1920’s is now over 100 years old). Other factors to inform yourself about are the threshold value above which import taxes apply and if an export license from the country of origin is required. Next, verify that the seller is compliant with export laws of the country it is coming from. Obviously, this also requires a sound and truthful description of the item you’re interested in: reputable sellers will be able to provide you with parallels and references for an item on which its age is determined. When it’s you yourself buying jewellery in another country and bringing it home with you, informing yourself about both export and import legislation falls to you. And finally, keep the receipts and any documentation – imagine your heirs would want to sell or donate a piece in say, 50 years or so: by then, most of your pieces will have become antiques, and they will be needing solid proof you aquired them legally.

So, yes, as far as UNESCO 1970 goes you can buy that bracelet or necklace perfectly well, as long as you duly pay your import taxes and ensure you are compliant with legislation on antiques, if the item qualifies as such.

But… UNESCO 1970 is not the only international convention that affects the trade in traditional jewellery. There are the CITES regulations as well as ethics to be taken into account, too, which I will go into next!

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[1] See more about the convention here:

[2] Most, not all. Uzbekistan has strict export laws, for example, and buying old jewellery (or old anything, actually, including household appliances) is a legal no-no. These laws are actively enforced, too: I have had my luggage inspected on several border crossings.

[3] Please take note that this does not apply to antiquities. ‘Excavated’ beads, ‘Neolithic’ beads etc for example are antiquities!

Sigrid van Roode

Sigrid van Roode is an archeologist, ethnographer and jewellery historian. She considers jewellery heritage and a historic source. She has authored several books on jewellery from North Africa and Southwest Asia, and on archaeological jewellery. Sigrid has lectured for the Society of Jewellery Historians, the National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden and the Sultan Qaboos Cultural Center, among many others. She curates exhibitions and teaches online courses on jewellery from North Africa & Southwest Asia.