Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Georgia Acts to Save its Treasures

Tbilisi is beginning to try to combat the steady loss of its artistic heritage.
By Lela Iremashvili

Parts of Georgian heritage can be found for sale on the streets of Tbilisi, sometimes in antique shops, but also at impromptu street-markets in the old city by the so-called Sukhoi Most (Dry Bridge). Here, stretched out on the ground on blankets, you can still find valuable objects brought out of people’s homes and sold for a song.


In recent years, people have increasingly tended to sell objects through dealers. But a 19th century kerosene lamp can still fetch 100 US dollars here and a bronze chandelier can go for 30 times as much.


The traders at Sukhoi Most also provide business-like advice on how to export antiques without falling foul of the authorities.


Antique smuggling reached a peak in Georgia in the mid-1990s. The Georgian-Abkhaz war had just ended, the borders were not controlled and the impoverished population sold off family treasures to make ends meet.


“A couple of years ago, when I was in big financial straits, I earned good money by selling a family relic, an old icon, to collectors in Turkey,” confessed Tbilisi resident Mamuka Davitashvili. “I went in my own car and sewed the icon underneath the car upholstery. At the border I gave the customs men a bribe so that they didn’t inspect me properly. I was still nervous when they looked over the inside of the car.”


This kind of practice is now the main target of the ministry of culture’s new legislative drive. “Smuggling has become a serious problem for the country over the last few years and a large part of our package of legislation is devoted to solving this problem,” said Mzekal Gazdeliani, the director of the ministry’s legal department.


“We have decided finally to change fundamentally the current situation, when anyone who wants to can trade in unique works of art practically without control and it’s as easy to open an antiques shop as a grocery.”


The proposed laws, presented to the government and the president last week, take the form of amendments to existing legislation.


Central to the reforms is a requirement that any operation involving antiques, whether commercial transactions inside the country or exports, needs the permission of the ministry of culture.


The ministry of culture hopes to push this legislative package through parliament before the summer break. “The population has at home a huge quantity of valuable works of art – which are part of the country’s historical and cultural tradition stretching back many centuries,” Gazdeliani told IWPR.


However, some say that the smuggling trade will continue until the ordinary population has a financial incentive not to sell off its treasures.


A few years ago housewife Nana Pirmasashvili sold a rare 18th century carpet, knowing it would fetch a high price with a western buyer. “Of course I would have much preferred if the state could have bought it off me for a decent price. But alas this was not possible,” she said.


“Unfortunately it’s been several years since the state bought things of value off the population,” David Kalandia, director of the valuable objects department of the ministry of culture told IWPR. “Museums often have difficulty paying for the electricity they use so they cannot afford to acquire a really valuable thing for its real price.”


Currently, the ministry of culture gives out around two thousand permissions for rare antiques to be exported from Georgia. However, many of these are actually objects of lesser value, which the owner acquired authorisation for just to be on the safe side.


Up until now, it has been strictly forbidden to export objects of value to the state from Georgia – but this has been routinely flouted at Georgia’s frontiers. There has not been a single instance of someone trying to export works of value illegally being caught in the act.


The customs authorities say the problem is not so much gaps in legislation as a lack of proper inspection facilities. “Many customs points have no X-ray equipment and our officers have to work just on the information they have and their own intuition,” top customs official Gogita Jashi told IWPR.


Occasionally, Georgian treasures do turn up in foreign countries. But other objects, such as a painting by the 16th century artist Lucas Cranach, stolen from Tbilisi’s State Art Museum, have never been recovered. The ministry of culture says that 139 works of art have been stolen from Georgian museums over the last ten years. In 2001, the Black Sea port of Poti lost a cast of Peter the Great’s hand dated to 1767.


The true picture is almost certainly worse, as many thefts do not get reported. The ministry of culture is now beginning to compile an inventory of works of art in Georgia. This long process has only just started and, said David Kalandia, it will continue for at least another year.


Lela Iremashvili is a journalist with Black Sea Press news agency in Tbilisi


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