Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Cultural Racketeering and Miami

Miami is a hub for stolen antiquities from Peru, Ireland, Greece, Egypt (Michael E. Miller, 'From Famous Paintings to Egyptian Sarcophagi, South Florida Is a Hub for Illicit Artifacts' Miami New Times  Thursday, Sep 11 2014). Miami has long been a black-market boomtown. The trend began in the '80s, when the city was flush with drug money, and the dodgy goods passing through the city include a large number of pieces of stolen art or illicit antiquities, some of which are detected and seized at the border:
 "We do know that Miami is a point of entry for a lot of this stuff," says Stephen Urice, a law professor at the University of Miami who studies stolen artifacts. Why Miami? It's a convenient meeting point for rich Americans, Europeans, and Latinos, and its airport is one of the busiest in the world. [...] Miami is especially fertile ground for furtive deals, whether it's illegal arms or artwork. "There's a lot of money in South Florida, some of it dirty,'' U.S. Customs spokesman Michael Sheehan told the Miami Herald in 1999. "They know the people will keep it quiet because their money is dirty just like the art is hot.'' 

Urice is further quoted as saying that the most common antiquity cases involve pre-Columbian artifacts smuggled through Miami:
In 1982, for instance, customs agents at Miami International Airport found $200,000 worth of Mayan jewelry inside a box marked "garden tools." Six years later, it was ancient Peruvian pottery hidden inside cheap furniture. Perhaps the strangest find was in 1995, when MIA inspectors discovered a solid-gold ceremonial rattle and a mummified head inside a crate, also from Peru. Or maybe it was the shipment of decorated craniums from the same country intercepted at MIA in 2003. Not all the loot comes from Latin America. In 1991, the FBI found $7 million worth of stolen Irish antiquities — including the headstone for Saint Dermot's grave — on a 54-foot sailboat. Eight years later, the feds dug into a crate of fresh fish and found 271 items lifted from the Archaeological Museum of Ancient Corinth in Greece. 
The article also mentions the Miami seizure of an Egyptian sarcophagus in 2008 ("An American collector had bought the coffin in Spain. But when he tried to import it to the States, Egyptian officials cried foul").
Urice says some oddball collectors with an obsession don't try too hard to find out where their new prize came from. Other times, the stolen art simply becomes currency on Silk Road or other black markets. "It's like, 'I'll trade my Matisse for some cocaine, and then you give me some arms for my cocaine; I trade those arms for a Picasso...' " Urice says. "Just about everything is for sale."
Here are some past PACHI articles discussing the place of Miami in the antiquities market. Many of them are covered in more detail by Rick St Hilaire:
There was one involving the import of Chinese artefacts by a dealer Winter Park, Florida, Sunday, 15 December 2013, 'Fiddling the Papers in Miami'; Monday, 4 November 2013, 'FloridaDealer Charged over Importation of Ancient Chinese Artefacts'
Then there is one involving a Peruvian, Jean Combe Fritz  who decided to fight forfeiture: Thursday, 4 July 2013, 'One to Watch, St Hilaire on "U.S. v. Twenty-Nine Pre-Columbian and Colonial Artifacts from Peru" '; Saturday, 11 May 2013, 'Peruvian Smuggling Mystery Followed by Miami Forfeit',
I have also covered a story about artefacts from El Salvador: Thursday, 13 May 2010, 'Maya artefacts, MOUs and "Unrestricted Collectors' Rights"'.
The Miami area has its own problems with looters and the sale of illicit antiquities: Thursday, 28 February 2013, 'Artefact Hunters and Dealers Arrested in Florida'. 

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