Monday 13 February 2012

Heritage Crime: Glasgow team gets £1m grant to study illegal trade in antiquities

This looks like a useful project. It is about time we had some properly collected data.
Every year, artefacts and antiquities of cultural significance are looted and smuggled around the world, often turning up in private collections or even museums [...] Now, a team at Glasgow University has been awarded a £1m grant from the European Research Council to study the illegal trade in antiquities. Researchers will spend the next four years gathering and analysing data on the movements and motives of traffickers, the types of activities involved, such as illegal excavation; transit and purchase; and pricing structures. The aim is to develop new approaches to regulate the international trade of cultural goods and help policymakers better define laws to fight criminal activities
Significantly, this project will be headed by criminologist Dr Simon Mackenzie, who has written a number of important papers on the legislation of cultural property protection. He says that looting is "widespread":
"There are architectural sites and museums that are being looted all over the world, including Britain and the USA, but obviously more so in the developing world. Previous safe areas have become accessible and the material is saleable. Nowhere is safe." Mackenzie said it is impossible to estimate how much the trade is worth, and the research will try to follow the money trail from the international markets back down the line to those who take the objects from their original site. [...] Mackenzie said the trade is helped by the fact that it is often hard to confirm the provenance of a specific object, and those involved have become adept at covering their tracks. [...]
As a result of the mechanisms operating along the global chain of supply from the archaeological record to the dealer and to the collector's home, cultural objects which are criminal at source take on the appearance of legitimacy by the time they reach market destinations. The project will examine this process. Among the research techniques used in Professor Mackenzie’s study, the team will conduct interviews and observations along known global trade routes for antiquities in order to understand how the illicit objects travel around the world. Professor Mackenzie said: “This funding will ensure that the research team are able to undertake a sustained and deep investigation of this transnational market and to compare its routines and laws to other transnational criminal markets like the traffic in drugs, wildlife and arms.”
Neil Brodie is also quoted. He pointed out that the market is driven by availability, dealers are active in creating markets for what they've got their hands on. The efforts of coin dealers (with for example the "Ancient Coins for Education" projects) are transparently clear to anyone who looks over their shoulders. The same applies to the rest of the antiquities market. Brodie says:
"The people who sell this material they are actively wanting to create markets. If it becomes possible, for instance, to dig up rock art in the deep Sahara, they will be promoting that; they will actively create a market for it. There is a synergy between the accessibility and the availability of the material, and the marketability by the dealers. The internet has made that a lot easier." The buyers of looted artefacts have also changed, says Simon Mackenzie, from those with an understanding of art and antiquities to those with money in search of a status symbol. "People have become more casual consumers; people with money are more interested in buying art without caring [where it is from]. It has moved away from more artisanal consumerism, which may explain why people are not so concerned about the provenance of the object."
Neil Brodie is dismayed at the television dramas and sitcoms that feature antiquities as part of the décor, as if it is desirable to have such objects in your home. People should understand, he said, that the illegal trade in antiquities can damage not just specific sites, but a nation's cultural heritage.[...] If these sites are just dug out or destroyed it weakens their cultural identity; groups that have been politically oppressed and whose political and cultural identity are intertwined. You have to protect archaeological and cultural sites; they are quite crucial."
Let us wish the new research team success in their efforts and hope it will bear fruit in some clearer and authoritative guidelines what needs to be done to bring the relevant legislation out of the 1960s, '70s and '80s to something more suited to the current state of the market.

The research will take part over the next four years and will require an interdisciplinary approach, covering criminology, archaeology, law, anthropology, cultural studies, international relations, politics, economics and development studies.

Kirsty Scott, 'Glasgow team gets £1m grant to study illegal trade in antiquities', The Guardian Scotland Blog, 13 February 2012.
STV Local 1, 'Glasgow academic to research illegal trade of historical artefacts', February 2012.

Photo: Metal Detectors are used a lot in Looting (photo: Linda Nylind/Guardian), Glasgow University Link

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