Saturday 18 February 2012

Laundering the Loot

There was an interview on Channel 4 News with Christos Tsirogiannis (researcher in illicit antiquities and repatriation cases at Cambridge University, and formerly archaeologist with the Greek police squad). He warned that the economic recession will lead, in the countries that have an archaeological record rich with the remains of ancient civilisations (such as Greece, Italy and Egypt) we are going to see big problems with looting of sites and theft from collections. "In Greece, this is connected with the financial situation. We will have more of such things coming up in the next few months", he said. In the case of the Olympia Museum theft, he suggests: "The people who stole this are uneducated people with no money, who are not aware it will be difficult to give these objects to the market as they are recorded, and there are pictures of them. They do it for money, but they are not aware it will be really difficult to get rid of them". He then goes on to describe possible smuggling routes:
It may be the case that some of them end up in refrigeration trucks transporting food in order to be smuggled across borders, through Turkey and the former Yugoslavia, before reaching Europe where they are likely to fetch up a higher price. Another popular route for other goods illegally seized or excavated from Asia, Mr Tsirogiannis said, is aboard ships to Italy. From there they may make their way to Switzerland, and from there, he said, they may be laundered in auctions in London and New York before being sold to private museums and collectors.
"Richard Ellis (former Scotland Yard detective who set up the Metropolitan Police's Art and Antiques Squad, now a specialist art and antiquities crime investigator) was also interviewed. He said that art and antiquities theft
"has become an organised crime business". Criminal business in illicit and stolen antiquities is fast rivalling the illicit trade in fine art in terms of cost and scale, and with culture thieves, middlemen and dealers taking advantage of the increasingly deteriorating economic situation in modern countries occupying the territories of some of the world's most ancient civilisations, the trade is likely to continue to boom. Channel 4 adds: "While experts say it is almost impossible to estimate the true cost of the trade in illicit antiquities, some say costs can vary between $50 million to $1 billion".
According to Mr Ellis, many [sites/museums] are looted or excavated by poorer local people looking to make some fast yet small amounts of cash, before being sold on to intermediaries. The real mark up, he says, comes in the stage after that, after they have been passed on to dealers. From here they can end up in auction houses or with private collectors, having changed hands for millions of dollars. In some cases, Mr Ellis said, collectors are aware they are trading in illegal goods, despite a rise in 'due dilligence' to establish the provenance of items.
Now, Mr Ellis told Channel 4 News, "the incentive is there to make money in Greece [...] I am sure the current economic situation is Greece is triggering people to become more active [in this type of illegal activity]". "I would expect these objects are going to get moved. It's a transitional country for other stolen goods, and they can go west or east", Mr Ellis said.

So, before passing onto - for example - the US market, a freshly illegally dugup artefact, or one recently stolen from a museum or private collection, may have clandestinely passed through several countries on their way out of Greece. It is pretty obvious that not every case of the unlawful export of objects from Greece will be detected at the Greek borders. It is unreasonable to expect Greek Customs to unload every truck of - for example - frozen kalmary or meat leaving the country at the roadside to check whether there are small antiquities hidden right at the back, or strip search every tourist and business traveller leaving the country. If it were possible to stop this so easily, there would have been no need for a 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. In order therefore to combat culture theft, it is necessary to establish the origins of objects of types that are found in a source country like Greece coming onto the market through other countries. Unless something can be documented as having legally entered Ruritania from Greece, or at least the import into Ruritania was so long ago that investigation is not going to determine how it got there and is a waste of time, its export to an external market should be seen as suspect. Obviously legislation intending to combat the international trade needs to take into account the mobility of the artefacts ("portable antiquities") in recent times, and the ability of cultural criminals to 'launder items' by taking them through other countries such as Switzerland and the German markets.

It should be noted that it is PRECISELY this aspect of the legislation that dealers lobbyists (ACCG and Peter Tompa's employers the PNG in particular) are currently actively fighting. This shows a less-than-willingness to co-operate in cutting down the illicit trade by dealing with laundering. It is also an area where current legislation and regulation, both national and international are woefully lacking, being stuck in a mental time-warp as though it was still the 1960s.


Dorothy King said...

I'm afraid I don't have any experience of smuggling antiquities, so my comments will have to be conjecture based on other information I have, but the smuggling map routes look a bit wrong to me.

A lot of Turkish stuff was going out via Syria, although presumably less now because of the civil war going on there.

A lot of Greek material exits via Bulgaria .

And although much material passes through Switzerland, far less than in the past - much of the traffic has instead moved to Germany.

The map should also include north Africa and Spain

Paul Barford said...

It says "from Greece".

I think from something I was looking into the other day the Syria route is still open. Don't forget the Gulf States are an up-and-coming market for antiquities these days.

Dorothy King said...

Apologies, I was doing a quick comment, and you're right ...

I still think even just material from Greece is going less through Switzerland than in the past. And I would make the line going NE out of Greece to Bulgaria thicker to emphasise that route.

Cyrene was an early Greek colony because if you look on a map it's straight across the Med - see here - so just as Carthage to Sicily was an old commerce route used in Antiquity, the Mani or Crete to Cyrene is a sailing route used to smuggle Antiquities. Material also comes out of north Africa through Spain, although Greece - Libya - Spain - auction house is a less likely route.

The Middle East is complicated as it's a large and very diverse region. Kuwait is excavating Hellenistic sites and trying to get material looted from the museum in Gulf War I back - but there are probably Kuwaiti citizens also buying material they should not. In Saudi they are now excavating and trying to preserve their heritage, but that's a pretty recent development and not universally approved of or implemented.

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