Thursday 25 February 2010

US Customs' "Vigilance"

In the CNN report In the CNN report ('US returns cultural treasures to Iraq', Feb. 25th 2010) quoted above while handing over a handfull of confiscated Iraqi cultural property to a representative of that country, the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement Assistant Secretary John Morton is quoted as saying that the items being returned to Iraq are:
"precisely the types of treasures that ICE's Cultural Property, Art and Antiquities unit was established to identify, investigate and return to their rightful owners [...] We will continue to be vigilant about finding and prosecuting those who would rob a nation for personal gain."
One really wonders about the "vigilance" of US authorities which allow huge shipments of, for example, uncleaned coins metal- detected from archaeological sites in the Balkans and Near East to pass through US borders on their way to eBay sellers in the States. Each year some hundreds of thousands of (perhaps , according to Nathan Elkins who has done a lot of work on this, even a million) ancient dug-up coins many with the earth still on them may be sold through eBay and V-Coins by US sellers.

This prompts the question: how many such coins have US customs stopped at the borders this year? The 27 coins which the ACCG themselves informed Baltimore customs officers they were illegally imported? OK, but how many more? How many people in the US or abroad have been put in jail or heavily fined for involvement in antiquities smuggling into the US as a result of ICE investigations? That actually is a serious question. I presume the ICE actually have some kind of figures on this. Can we see them? How do we measure the "vigilance" of the current system in fighting the illicit movement of decontextuaalised archaeological material across international borders?

One gets the impression that showy 'handovers' like this under the eye of the press are intended mainly to create the impression in Washington that 'progress' is being made. Rarely however is any mention made of what happened to the people who were caught importing illegally exported material, whether investigations were able to trace back the chain of law-breaking to its origin. In fact, as in this case, I get the impression that the artefacts in question were impounded due to an accidental dicovery in a random spot-check (or like the coin mentioned the guilt-ridden owner handed them in themselves) rather than as the result of any concerted effort or detailed investigations intended to catch cultural criminals shielded by the no-questions-asked market in antiquities which currently prevails in the USA and which groups like the ACCG are engaging coin collectors in headlong conflict with the US government in order to maintain. I suspect I am not alone in hoping that when the current "Baltimore" case is over, the ICE and related organs will turn their attention to the stockrooms and documentation of ACCG-affiliated dealers; just where are they getting all those artefacts? I think, given the fuss they've been creating, we all have the right to know.

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