Sunday 17 February 2013

Antiquities and Narcotics: What is the Connection?

Drugs trafficked alongside smuggled art… not many cases found, against general assumptions on the topic
It's a notable characteristic of those that write about what they insist on calling "art crime" that all too often they are concerned with saying what they have discovered "does not" happen ("contrary to what people believe"). So every time a museum loses a painting we hear that "art theft is not like the Thomas Crown Affair", that "there is no Mr Big" and "they'll never make any money out of it". Time and time again. Jessica Dietzler seemingly reckons that we should not think of organized crime organizing the theft and smuggling of antiquities, and now Mr Balcells apparently reckons that anybody who thinks there is a connection between the movement of antiquities across international borders and the movement of other illicit goods across the same international borders is wrong.

Note that he says this because so little is "found". The first point about this is that the number of dugup foreign artefacts flowing through the barrier of bubbles that is US Customs control suggests very strongly that they're not catching the other stuff too.

In fact the whole idea of a connection between antiquities and illicit drugs has to a large degree its (modern) origin in the efforts of US law enforcement agencies in the US where they were finding that illegal drug production and distribution networks were indeed associated with the use of illicitly-excavated artefacts as a source of cash. There are several articles on this referenced and discussed on the PACHI blog. Now, to some degree the emphasis placed on this may have been a public relations exercise over there, convincing the public that there is a strong link between the two may have a beneficial 'social engineering' effect, I do not know. Certainly that was a message that was coming out of the US a few years ago.

I do not know how much Mr Balcells has looked into the trade in antiquities from central and eastern Europe. In certain of the better-evidenced segments of this, there is a very strong correlation between the antiquities trade and organized crime and the drugs trade. The antiquities are travelling on the back of networks used to shift other illegal commodities. Certainly it looks to me as if those post-1989 networks were in fact set up primarily to move drugs from sourtheastern Europe, that they had to go around the Jugoslavian war-zone led to a realignment of those links. In more recent years, the trade through the Baltic ports (not "Helsinki"!) and coming into the EU through Poland is related to shifting interests of the organized criminal groups of Russia (plus Ukraine and Belarus), which again includes their interests in the movement of easily transported high-value goods like illicit narcotics. This particular area of the antiquities trade (the "Viking" artefacts sold by many US and European dealers and many of them deriving from eBay, they are not even Viking age) has been a very dynamic one and of the artefacts of the East and west Balts (which is what most of the stuff sold actually is) are of considerable interest in reconstructing the networks as many of them are highly regional types. Here archaeology could work hand-in-hand with criminology sorting out how these networks (that is if you believe they exist) work, develop and shift. Unfortunately the evidence is ephemeral; as collectors  week after week buy these objects no-questions-asked from the various dealers supplied by these criminals, few permanent records are created.   

I have less personal knowledge about the connection between illicit antiquities and illicit narcotics in Asia, South America and Africa, but I'd not be at all surprised to find there are links there too.  Certainly I am of the opinion that it is not an issue to be dismissed.

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