Sunday 19 February 2012

Olympia Theft: Getting rid of the Stuff

In the Channel 4 news item to which David Gill referred in his post 'Olympia theft: "it will be really difficult to get rid of them"..' this hope is expressed by Dr Christos Tsirogiannis. I am not so sure. Dr Tsirogiannis has recently had a lot of success identifying objects which were apparently on the illicit trade several decades ago when they "resurface", sometimes with a new provenance, in the most "unexpected" (?) of places. I wonder though whether in this case we will see more than a few of these objects again.

This depends how we see the thieves. Were they desperate uneducated Greek jobless folk who just happened to have a kalashnikov lying around the house (no European household should be without one) who 'had a go'? Or were they two members of an already established Balkan gang already involved in the illicit trade in antiquities with clandestine supply routes already open, who crossed the (green?) border into Greece, did the raid and are by now with the loot on their way home? Time will tell and the police advance their investigations, but at the moment I am more inclined to see them as the latter, the links between antiquities looting and smuggling and organized crime seem to be becoming increasingly clear. In the first case, there is a chance that we'll see the objects surface pretty quickly. In the second, dodgy dealers will take them and offer them to dodgy buyers and we'll never see them again.

Over a year ago some very distinctive objects disappeared from another museum. One would have thought "pssst, d'ya wanna buy this genuine statue of the boy-king Tutankhamun straight from his tomb?" would have landed somebody in jail by now, but no - the object has vanished. If we assume the object is on the market [which actually I think is not the case - but more of that when it is appropriate], that would tell us something about that market. The current state of the international antiquities market makes it possible for tonnes (literally) of small freshly-dug artefacts to be absorbed without any trouble at all and simply disappear. Moreover the system of distribution of these objects is developed in such a way to hinder tracing the movements of artefacts. This is what money-laundering is all about, and it is clear that freshly "surfaced" (from underground) artefacts are 'laundered' in the same way.

All those artefacts without any documentation "which are of legal origins (though you cannot prove or check this)" could be there precisely to shield the other artefacts on the market without documentation which are freshly "surfaced" because illegally obtained. That is clearly one way in which the antiquities trade would manage to top up the resources from buying up old collections with large amounts of freshly dug stuff illegally removed from one source country or another. This no-questions-asked trade is where the small percentage of smuggled items that is actually detected and seized by customs inspections are headed.

Larry Rothfield hits the nail on the head discussing the Olympia theft:

the mere fact that artifacts are in a museum and recorded is not going to deter criminals who believe they are worth a lot of money on the black market. The criminals may be too stupid to know that fencing these hot objects may be difficult because a recorded artifact on the Art Loss Register or the like is almost certain to eventually be spotted if they come onto the auction house market or get donated to a museum. Or the criminals may be smart enough to have already set up a deal with a middleman or with a collector. Either way,the point is clear: antiquities cannot be protected only by a registry, if an illicit market exists.
I would go further. We cannot stop the illicit market without tackling the problem of the existence of a wholly no-questions-asked market that shields it from any scrutiny.


Dorothy King said...

The British Museum tried to set up a registry of looted material a few years ago and failed. I tried recently too, because the Art Loss Register is not open to all and not good for archaeology (plus it's a for profit and charges - nothing wrong with that - but I wanted a freely available web site open to all). The politics are nutty, with governments denying items are stolen and refusing to provide photos or info. eg the government that was probably going to fund the database refused to be included in it.

I fully agree that the current "not in our database" certificates being issued by Art Loss are meaningless for antiquitites.

But I still feel that if one makes images available and publicises missing items, that although it might not stop the originator looting or raiding a museum, it would stop dealers and collectors buying those items ... therefore making the original illegal act uneconomical.

Paul Barford said...

Well, obviously the problem with the market is there are people buying stuff knowing full well that there are photos, just hoping nobody will catch them out... This stuff regularly turns up even in London auctions as we have seen. I really do not believe that every one of those anonymous consigners had no idea where those objects were not so long ago. They know, and are hoping to slide their goods onto the market unchallenged. Sometimes they are, I bet sometimes they are not (otherwise what gives them the idea they can get away with it?) and they are thumbing their noses at the rest of us. It's a nasty, nasty business.

Dorothy King said...

I guess I tend to see the best in people (to the point where I realise it's a flaw), so I hope that that isn't true. But yes, some people are consigning lots they know are dodgy, and one auction house could do with someone who had scrupples and not accept every lot she's presented with.

Cultural Property Observer said...

Perhaps that 1 million euro or pound grant given by the European Research Council could be better spent on the creation of such a registry.

Paul Barford said...

No, I think the rest of us want to see it spent on investigating the illicit trade.

Why don't you?

kyri said...

dorothy makes some good points but i cant agree with the statement "not in our database certificates are meaningless for antiquities",maybe this is the case for looted antiquities [as was the case recently with some pieces in a london auction]
but certainly not stolen ones.
for some reason museums do not like to publicise thefts from their collections but as a private collector of greek pots,which are all unique,i would have no qualms publicising anything stolen from me.
for the private collector the art loss register is certainly one importnt resource,even for antiquities.

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