.On MSN are some general comments on the antiquities trade which seem worth highlighting. They were made by Mark Durney of Art Theft Central and the Association for Research into Crimes against Art (ARCA) in an interview for an Indian newspaper. In line with the remit of the organizations which he represents, he treats the problem of archaeological looting as part of "art crime", which he defines as including: "archaeological looting, art theft, vandalism, iconoclasm, the illicit art and antiquities trade, forgery, and fakes, among many other fields". He points out that "the looting of archaeological sites is a global enterprise and quite likely the most common art crime".
I am not terriby sure how useful this categorisation of "art history" really is. Is the theft of a Monet sketch the same as the work of a minor twentieth century watercolourist of local importance, and is the theft of a picture from a wall really so much different from the theft of a vintage Bentleyor my sister's Ford Escort?
The main problem I have here is that treating the trashing of archaeological sites as mere "art crime" (ie, theft of the objects) ignores the real problem which is the destruction caused to the site getting the object out. It is the site which is ruined as a source of information about the past which is lost, it is the site and its information content that is taken away from the archaeological resource which should be used sustainably as a common cultural heritage, rather than something toi be commercially and destructively exploited by a few individuals. The collectable artefacts ripped from those sites are not so much lost (because once on the market they are often valued in mega-bucks). Rather the problem is that almost every single object on the collectors' market, even at the beginning of the twenty-first century, has had any more complex layers of information they may have offered to proper study definitively removed by the item being decontextualised and treated as just "art". These layers of the record of which this object's continued physical existence formed part have been erased. Deliberately erased by the no-questions-asked antiquities market.
Asked how "art crime" can be prevented Durney was not very specific:
There needs to be a sort of call to arms to reduce the handling of illicit objects as well as greater disapproval for auction houses, galleries, and dealers who work with objects that are considered “dirty” whether they have been looted or are in fact fakes.Not only a "call to arms" and "disapproval" (for we have the tut-tutting already) but effective steps taken to catch, investigate and punish culture criminals.
Personally I am not so concerned about the fake-peddling con-men. If people are so stupid and greedy as to buy something without ascertaining precisely where they came from, then they deserve to be caught out by those that exploit precisely the no-questions-asking that facilitates other types of illicit trade in antiquities. These people hope to buy real looted artefacts, so they deserve to be caught out by their own greed and carelessness. Also, a case can be made that from an archaeological point of view, the more collectors are satisfied they have "filled a hole" in their domestic displays with something the aesthetics of which they are happy with and evokes whatever feelings the antiquity is suupposed to evoke, but which in fact is not an ancient dug-up at all, then all the better for the remaining undug bits of the archaeological record.
Art crime is one of the few crimes that people consider to be sexy and elegant [...] Art thieves tend to be more successful than other criminal endeavours. Only 7-10 per cent of art thefts are ever solved. Unfortunately, art’s portability, high value, and the lax security protecting it, motivate criminals to steal it. Although these elements certainly prove the uniqueness of art crime, I think it is best to view art crime as another part of the ecosystem of illicit industries, which include the drug and weapons trade, money laundering, and human trafficking. Art crime has very clear connections to the drug trade as it has been frequently used as collateral in exchanges.Are Internet sellers of dug-up antiquities "sexy and elegant"? Some of them have photos in the internet...
.Photo: Mark Durney.