Wednesday 5 January 2011

“Clandestine excavation is a crime that is hard to prove”

The Art Newspaper has an interview with former Italian public prosecutor Paolo Giorgio Ferri on the scourge of commercial looting of archaeological sites. Ferri was the state prosecutor in Marion True's trial but has recently stepped down as a judge to work on the problem of stolen antiquities with Italy’s ministry of culture as “expert in international relations and recovery of works of art”. He talks of the spate of plundering of antiquities in Italy, which began in 1970 and went on for at least 35 years.
I think we are aware of about 30% of what has taken place. The few restitutions that have proved possible are largely symbolic: they concern perhaps 3% of the finds from clandestine excavations which have appeared on the antiquities market.[...] The UN conference in 2000 in Palermo on transactional crimes indicated crime related to cultural heritage often ensured high profits. There are some signs of links between art dealers and organised crime and also with terrorism. [...] The problem is that investigations don’t have much sense if they are restricted to single countries. [...] Meanwhile, as Italy has increased its efforts to combat trade in illegal antiquities, the situation in, for example, Bulgaria has seriously deteriorated. If organised crime experiences difficulties in one country, it tries to make up for it in areas where there is interesting material to be excavated and marketed.
In answer to a question, "which antiquities have proved most difficult to retrieve and which ones still need to be tracked down?", Ferri answers:
Coins come to mind: the first antiquities that are found using a metal detector, they are often of crucial importance for dating an archaeological site or a tomb.
The crux of the problem is that:
Clandestine excavation is a crime that is hard to prove and hard to combat; until the object is put on display, it is not even clear that the crime has been committed.
presumably "display" means also "surfacing on the market". Ferri discusses the problem caused by a loophole in the current Italian legislation.

The article stresses the need for a coordinated international approach and mentions the outdated 1970 Convention:
I know that there are people at Unesco who are thinking of updating Convention 14711 of 1970, ideally by setting up teams in individual states which are specialised in this kind of crime.
That is good news, it is well overdue for an overhaul due to fundamental changes in the form size and scope of the antiquities market since 1970, and also the abuse of the current wording by pirate dealers and supporting legislators of states like the USA.

More here: Fabio Isman “Clandestine excavation is a crime that is hard to prove
Art Newspaper issue 220, 5 January 2011

Why did we not think earlier of using the term "Convention 14711" for the cumbersomely named 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Cultural Property? Oddly enough the only trace in the Internet of a reference to the Convention in this way seems to be in links to this text.

Paolo Giorgio Ferri in his office

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