Monday, 1 February 2016

The Question of Stolen Antiquities

There is an article on the IBA website by Mark Vlasic which begins with a discussion of the case of Peter Tompa's former client,  Eric Prokopi, and the items he handled, but then turns to other sectors of the collectables market (Return of looted Mongolian dinosaur prompts questions on stolen antiquities and terrorist financing ):
There may have been a time where buying looted antiquities could be brushed-off by some as a ‘victimless’ crime. Such individuals may have rationalised the fact that at least such antiquities could find a ‘proper’ home, in a well-preserved private collection or museum, where such cultural heritage could be better appreciated. And every middle-man in the transaction could simply deflect any possible wrongdoing as beyond the scope of his or her remit. But when there are reports that groups such as ISIS are profiting from such looting, and ISIS-inspired fighters are training their weapons on civilians in the same Western countries that may provide a marketplace for such blood antiquities – we must confront the truth of the matter: providing any marketplace, for any looted antiquity, erodes the honest marketplace that may provide the most effective tool against this illicit trade. Like those involved in disrupting the illicit trade in Mongolian dinosaurs, the front-line of any real solution must include those involved in the marketplace. Law enforcement plays a critical role in helping keep people ‘honest’ – by seeking criminal prosecutions, shame and real prison time for wrongdoers – but we must accept that, in many ways, those involved in the antiquities trade ‘value chain’ are likely the best placed to ensure that blood antiquities never enter the marketplace in the first place. Doing so may yet preserve those antiquities still buried in the sands of the world, and may yet deprive some measure of funding, that could be used to take another innocent human life.
Except, as we have plenty of opportunity to see, 'those involved in the antiquities trade value chain' refuse point blank to admit any responsibility for maintaining the hygiene of any honest marketplace, asserting that the part they are involved in is by definition 100% clean of any looted antiquities whatsoever. They ask us to accept that this is the case, despite the fact that few of them can actually show in any verifiable way that the bulk of them are not freshly surfaced looted material. We are asked to believe in a fantasy wonderland where coin fairies and elves substitute for real-world supply and demand chains.

Anyone who has spent any time looking at what dealers and collectors actually do, rather than merely going along with the declarative mantras of non-involvement and denial will have to be as sceptical as I am whether the resolution of this issue can ever come from the dealers and collectors. To shake them from their complacency, we need criminal prosecutions, shame, fewer plea deals but real prison time for those handling illicit artefacts - both looted and smuggled.

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