Thursday, 1 November 2012

Wall Street Journal: Market Causes Looting

One of the more tiresome of the mantras of the dealers and collectors of dugup antiquities is that no-questions asked trade in and collecting of such items is somehow not responsible for the continuance of looting. That this is nonsense is clear to most of us who see the operation of the principles of supply and demand in other areas of daily life, but dealers stand fast and stubbornly insist, we are all "wrong", and they are "right" (and we "do not understand how the market - a market unlike any other - functions"). Nevertheless now the Wall Street Journal joins the ranks of those who dealers say have it all wrong (Justin Scheck, 'Artifact Prices Draw Looters' Wall Street Journal November 2, 2012). "Despite Crackdown, Thefts of Indian Antiquities Continue West of the Rockies Artifact Prices Draw Looters" the article (subscribers only) begins.
Across the West, authorities are struggling to stop the looting of Indian antiquities. The thefts have continued despite a 2009 federal crackdown that resulted in more than 20 people being indicted in Utah. The case generated headlines due to the large number of charges, as well as the suicides of two defendants and a third man who reportedly was an informant in the case. Steep prices for artifacts and high rural unemployment have made digging for antiquities a popular pastime in places like eastern California, Nevada and Utah, where deserts have preserved painted pots for thousands of years. 
In the USA, figures on artefact thefts are rather unclear, most incidents never get reported and in the West of the country for example, Federal agencies frequently have "only one or two criminal investigators to cover areas approaching a million square miles". The latest year for which any data are available is 2010:
 the National Park Service tallied about 400 instances of artifact-looting in its parks nationwide, up from fewer than 300 in 2009, Mr. Swain said. The Forest Service in 2010 tallied about 50 incidents, down from about 150 the year before. [Todd Swain, a National Park Service investigator who specializes in looting cases] said the number of reported incidents can vary widely from year to year, and he estimated that as few as 20% of such thefts are reported. 
The article cites Eric Keefer (an agent with the Bureau of Land Management near Bishop, Calif.), who said he receives about 10 looting reports a year in just one area alone.  An archaeologist in Montana who has been performing damage assessments of looting sites for state and federal agencies for over a decade, said he believes looting is up. Martin McAllister says the looting is "worse now than it ever was because the economy is depressed".

There is a strong demand in the USA for archaeological artefacts of Native American origin. A California dealer (Terry Baxter who specializes in Western arrowheads) was interviewed. Apparently while there are many that sell for far less, some artefacts sell for $10,000 or more. The dealer is careful to point out that he and his fellows "are careful not to sell artifacts from federal land and that they refuse questionable items". Another dealer (Steve Lee from Missouri who deals in artefacts from east of the Rockies) is quoted as saying that he "declines one or two emailed offers a week to sell him Western arrowheads, out of concern they came from public land". Both however presumably would be happy to accept items from archaeological sites (a common heritage) that are trashed on land that happens to have a modern private owner. The Wall Street Journal notes:
online outlets that specialize in artifacts make it easy to sell just about anything, creating an incentive to dig. 
And there is of course no check on what is passing through them. 

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