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Stealing History June 21, 2000
by Mark Rose

Publication of a major new study on the illicit exploitation of cultural resources--Stealing History: The Illicit Trade in Cultural Material--was announced at a press conference Monday, June 12, in London. The study, commissioned by United Kingdom branch of the International Council of Museums and the Museums Association, was authored by Neil Brodie, Jenny Doole, and Peter Watson and published by the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research in Cambridge.

The authors present a brief history of looting, museum policy, and law from the 1960s to the 1970 UNESCO Convention, asking have things improved since then. The answer is no, with antiquities from Asia and Africa flooding the market, interest in ethnographic ("tribal") art, targeting of religious artworks from sculptures in Buddhist temples to frescoes and icons in Christian churches, and marketing of illicitly obtained objects on the Internet. Other sections address the importance of context and debate the justifications employed by some unscrupulous dealers and collectors to justify an illicit market.

Among the examples used to illustrate particular points or as case studies, are the Khmer temple of Banteay Chmar; mosaics from Kanakariá, Cyprus; Lydian treasure from Turkey; Moche tombs of Sipán, Peru; Getty kouros; Wanborough Romano-British temple; Apulian vases from Italy; Britain's Salisbury Hoard; and Mali.

Who profits from all of the looting? The figures, as laid out in Stealing History, point to middlemen as the big winners. Maya ceramics from the Petén that bring the looter $200 to $500, may ultimately fetch $100,000. In the case of five big-ticket items (a Song Dynasty head, Morgantina acroliths, Euphronius krater, Achyris phiale, and Marsyas statue), where we know the initial payout and the final price, middlemen received 98% of the money.

What can be done about the current state of affairs? Stealing History offers a detailed set of recommendations for stemming the looting and illicit trade. While many of these are particular to the United Kingdom, such as ratification of the 1970 UNESCO Convention, others are universal in application and address key problems.

A number of their recommendations are directed to museums, which, they say, should:

  • not acquire provenanced items whose accompanying documentation fails to comply with the export regulations of their country of origin, unless there is reliable documentation to show that they were exported from their country of origin before 1970.
  • not acquire unprovenanced items because of the strong risk that they have been looted.
  • apply the same strict rules to gifts and bequests and loans as they do to purchases.
  • decline to offer expertise on, or otherwise assist the current possessor of, unprovenanced items because of the risk that they may have been looted.
  • inform the appropriate authorities if they have reason to suspect an item has been illicitly obtained.
  • seize opportunities to raise public awareness of the scale and destructive impact of the illicit trade.

Not all of this report is doom-and-gloom. Positive steps by museums are highlighted, such as the return of a carved wooden lintel to Guatemala by the Denver Art Museum (even though it had been removed from Maya site and acquired before U.S. legislation prohibiting its importation) and cooperation between British and American museums and antiquities authorities in other countries. Also discussed are a number of exhibitions--in Mali, Jordan, Italy, and elsewhere--and other initiatives (including comic books) geared toward educating the public about looting and the need to protect archaeological sites.

One of the key points made by the authors is that the trade has to be transparent, that is the veil of secrecy over the history of objects being offered for sale on the art market must be lifted. Auction houses and dealers, say Brodie, Doole, and Watson, must "record and, when it is in the public interest, disclose the names of individuals or organisations from whom they purchase materials." Such open records would go far toward identifying those objects in collections from long ago as opposed to those that have just "surfaced" (with no history and likely either looted or forged). Ultimately, the authors note, it is up to any individual or institution that chooses to buy such material to demand clear and unambiguous proof that it is not looted. (After all you wouldn't buy your car from a stranger standing on a street corner--even if they wear a suit and stand on a swank street corner--who doesn't have title to it.) Doing anything less risks promoting the looting of sites and forging of antiquities, on the one hand, and, on the other, it potentially leaves the purchaser open to a lawsuit by a country or museum with a rightful claim to what is stolen property.

As the authors of Stealing History say, and Manus Brinkman, secretary general of the International Council of Museums, repeats in his foreword to the volume, "Nobody has to collect illicit material."

© 2000 by the Archaeological Institute of America