Friday, 26 October 2012

Border Authorities Miss Most Smuggled Artefacts?

The recent ICE media circus about the pre-Columbian Mexican artefacts seized while being smuggled into or illegally sold in the USA is being commented upon from a number of angles. In the past most commentators drew attentioon to the bla-bla about heritage and values and all the rest. in more recent months we are seeing voices asking where these investigations are actually leading - apart from making US border controls look better than they in fact are.  Antiquities busts make good propaganda to feed the American people. So, we find in the Los Angeles Times account of the Mexico repatrition event (Richard Faussett, 'U.S. returns more than 4,000 stolen antiquities to Mexico', October 25, 2012). The stories attached to these eleven batches of material: 
... will come as no surprise to Mexican officials and others who follow the widespread illicit trade in Mexican cultural artifacts. Noah Charney, the founding director of the nonprofit Association for Research Into Crimes Against Art, or ARCA, noted last year that Mexico had reported more than 2 million art objects stolen between 1997 and 2010, according to figures from Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology. Charney wrote that the yearly average of stolen items in Mexico surpasses the yearly average in Italy -- the country with the most stolen art reported each year in Europe -- by a factor of five. The comparison, he added, is probably somewhat flawed, since the Italian pieces tend to be more substantial works and Mexican antiquities “may include fragments or very low-value” items. But the problem is serious enough that the Mexican ambassador to France last year asked for UNESCO to consider strengthening its 1970 Convention on Protection of Cultural Property, which set international standards to help prevent the plunder of precious cultural items.
"Fragments or very low value items" or not, Charney is guilty of falling into the trap of object-centrism, it is not what was dug out of the holes and how much profit that can be made out of it that is of central importance to the question of the looting of sites (its the holes that are the problem not what comes out of them). In any case, over on Looting Matters today David Gill is talking precisely about "fragments" (of Classical pottery in the Met collections). That aside, Charney's point is that huge numbers of holes are being dug in Mexico's archaeological record to find and then hoik out lesser numbers of artefacts which enter the collectors market. Many collectors are glad to get their grubby hands on even "fragments" and those of them collecting-on-a-budget are very eager indeed to bulk out their collections with the lower-value items. They have no room in their dens for big objects, but a few pots, heads knocked off figures and framed bits of textile will create the desired effect.

So how many of those artefacts are travelling undetected through the barrier of bubbles at the US border? How many of those stolen artefacts have entered US collections right under the noses of the authorities, when and where, and what steps are taken when they resurface on the market as these collections are broken up? How many stolen and smuggled artefacts are currently in no-questions-asked circulation on the US market masquerading as 'from an old ** collection'?

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