Friday 14 February 2014

Mackenzie on Illicit Antiquities

"The discussion around antiquities which
were taken from Greece over two centuries ago
is part of the context of a more immediate issue of
global crime. Looting and trafficking of cultural objects
is not only a problem of the past".

On the back of the film The Monuments Men, Simon Mackenzie (Professor of Criminology, Law and Society at Glasgow University) has a piece in the Guardian ('While [Parthenon] Marbles debate rages, there is still a market for looted antiquities', 14th Feb 2014). This piece, discussing "contemporary and unambiguous examples of international cultural heritage plunder" seems however mainly to serve as a vehicle to plug the Glasgow Trafficking Culture project and the research of its members.

The thesis of the text is that "a growing body of research has established considerable evidence to show that looting and trafficking is still a sizeable and serious issue, and one involving significant sums of money". Of course the author then goes off onto the subject of "how much money" as if this were the most important issue.

It is notable that the examples used to illustrate what this cutting edge criminological research is revealing about the illicit antiquities trade today, instead of being drawn from the contemporary market, are drawn from the high-end-of-the-market cases of decades past (1970s looting in Cambodia, the 2002 Frederick Schultz case and Jonathan Tokeley-Parry and the 1997 expose of Sotheby's by Peter Watson). No mention is made of any research concerning the existing and functioning networks dealing in mass movements of 'minor' antiquities, or related issues (a notable omission, given Mckenzie's location, is any mention of the issues surrounding metal detecting in the UK, and like the Parthenon Marbles, is an issue directly involving the British Museum.)

The soundbite statement of the problem again concentrates on the high end of the market, leaving the bulk of it (which is in fact its lifeblood) totally unmentioned:
The international art market that deals in ancient cultural objects casts a destructive shadow. Tombs are looted, statues broken from their pedestals, and facades chainsawed off temples, all to feed a booming economic demand among connoisseurs who prize the enjoyment of the artistic attributes of cultural objects, the thrill and investment value of collection, and the social status attributed to those associated with high culture. The source countries for these collectible objects tend to be less economically developed than the market countries and so are usually not very well equipped to protect their heritage resources against plunder. London and New York are the two biggest centres for this trade in the world, and their active art markets have over the years exerted a strong demand for the archaeological riches underground in countries like Egypt, Greece and Turkey; or pieces of temple complexes like those found in South America and South East Asia
What the Glasgow project intends to suggest we all do about that (or anything else) remains as much a mystery as it was when they started, a year and a half ago. The Trafficking Culture project, is funded by the European Research Council under the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013) / ERC Grant agreement number 283873.

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