Thursday, 19 February 2009

Wealthy Art Patrons and 'Villainous Thugs'

Adrian Humphreys ('Plundered artifacts returned, but problem continues', National Post, Feb 18, 2009) writes:

Five valuable cultural artifacts seized by border guards while being smuggled into Canada have been returned to two African governments, ending their mysterious life on the run while highlighting the illicit trade in cultural antiquities, a pursuit that bonds wealthy art patrons to villainous thugs.

The items in question were two terracotta figurines and "an undated but culturally significant wood carving", repatriated to Nigeria, and three inscribed bronze bracelets turned over to officials from Mali. Of course any provenance these objects may once have had was (like that of many others) lost when they passed no-questions-asked antiquities market which is a cover for the illicit trade in "tainted" antiquities.

Nigerian High Commissioner Iyorwuese Hagher praised Canada's vigilance and called on citizens to support efforts aimed at "exposing syndicates who are still engaging in theft and smuggling and illicit trade in valuable items that form part of Nigeria's national heritage. "Africa continues to wallow in poverty when their raw materials and even artifacts continue to be plundered by thieves that benefit from illegal trade in these materials in international markets," he said.
The newspaper reports that on average, there are more than three seizures of suspected illicit cultural items at Canada's borders every month, according to figures provided by the Canada Border Services Agency. In 2007, border agents reported 38 seizures. The Movable Cultural Property Directorate has investigated 240 potentially illegal imports of plundered antiquities and made 13 returns since 1978 to eight countries, including Egypt, Colombia, Peru and Syria. Nevertheless despite their vigilance a lot is probably still getting through, a lot more resources are needed to curb this problem.

The Canadian newspaper points out that the illicit trade is fuelled, in large measure, by patrons in western nations with an insatiable desire to posess "unique objets d'art". As the value of these items goes up as legitimate sources dry up, it becomes more profitable for those willing and able to supply them by illicit means.

The illicit art market, of which plundered cultural items is a subspecialty, is considered the world's fourth-largest criminal enterprise - after drugs, guns and money-laundering - generating about $4- to $6-billion a year, according to the United Nations.
It is interesting however to see that the Canadian media seem currently eager to inform public opinion about the background to this trade (see here too) which we may contrast with the misinformation campaigns being conducted by US dealers-in-no-questions-asked antiquities which tries to play down the contribution made to their market by illicitly-obtained artefacts. Obviously a line drawn on the map acrosss the North American continent is dividing something - but what?

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