Friday 13 June 2014

Plundering the Past

Heather Pringle, 'New Evidence Ties Illegal Antiquities Trade to Terrorism, Violent CrimeIn Cambodia and beyond', National Geographic National Geographic June 13, 2014:
In a study published today in the British Journal of Criminology, criminologist Simon Mackenzie and lawyer Tess Davis, both of the University of Glasgow in Scotland, expose what they describe as the inner workings of the transnational criminal network that organized the looting of Banteay Chhmar and several other major Cambodian sites. "I don't think I can overstate how important this study is," says archaeologist Morag Kersel of DePaul University in Chicago, an expert on looting and artifact trafficking in Jordan and Israel. Until now, archaeologists have had little hard data "on how artifacts go from the ground to the consumer, but this study has it in a nutshell, and I see a lot of the same patterns and networks in the area I work in." [...] The Cambodian study is part of a groundswell of new research on the shadowy world of antiquities trafficking. Although reliable statistics on the illicit trade are scarce, a recent survey of 14,500 field archaeologists indicated that looters are at work in at least 103 countries worldwide. Most countries have laws prohibiting the plundering of sites and the export of their stolen cultural heritage, but wealthy collectors and other buyers continue to purchase looted artifacts, often viewing the trade as "a victimless crime," Mackenzie says.
The article then points out how civil society is a victim, not only through the destruction of sites and monuments which otherwise could be used to study the past, but "several studies, both ongoing and published, link antiquities traffickers to a range of serious crimes, including corruption, money laundering, prostitution, and the smuggling of drugs and endangered wildlife". Then the National Geographic's author suggests that "new evidence from Afghanistan and Iraq suggests that artifact smuggling networks are closely connected with violent insurgents [...]  blood antiquities may well be helping to finance terrorism in the Middle East and elsewhere". In this way journalists hope to link the fight against antiquity trafficking with the nebulous idea emanating from Bush's America of the "fight against terrorism" to give it "relevance". I am not 100% convinced this is a useful tactic, the evidence for such generalizations is rather thin on the ground - which does not of course mean it's not taking place. In any case just what the Bush regime imagined was "terrorism" is not exactly what the rest of the world does. Pringle then goes on to describe the mechanism by which statues reach the market:   
A high-quality statue could bring $1,250 (in today's U.S. dollars).[...]  the next link in the chain—the heads of an organized crime ring [...] controlled a range of criminal enterprises, from drug smuggling to prostitution [...] With expertise in smuggling, these crime bosses arranged the transport of stolen antiquities across remote stretches of the Thai border, and dealt ruthlessly with any competition.[...] a receiver accepted the stolen goods and conveyed them to a dealer in Bangkok, the apex of the trafficking network [...] Before that it was all underground, but the [dealer] is the portal into the legitimate market." Once laundered, a museum-quality statue can fetch hundreds of thousands of dollars from an international buyer. The new findings, says Davis, show in detail how looted antiquities go from the ground to the consumer. And what is surprising, she adds, is the small number of links between violent criminals in Cambodia and wealthy buyers around the world. "There are very, very few steps between a looted Cambodian temple and a collector."
That conclusion seems worth emphasizing - the small number of links between violent criminals  and wealthy buyers around the world, the very few steps between a looted site and a collector.
Shutting down this global black market will not be easy, particularly in countries where war and civil strife prevails. But many archaeologists think it's time to redouble the efforts [...] Others say that cracking down on looting is only part of the answer. Neil Brodie thinks governments and law enforcement agencies need to go after the kingpins of the trafficking networks more often. "I would like to see fewer customs seizures that result in just sending the objects back, and more enforcement agencies going after the crooks," says Brodie. "And I'd like to see full police investigations of the networks, knocking the principal players down."
Well, we all would. It seems pretty obvious that this is the only way to smash the networks, especially if they really are as short as Brodie and Davis claim. Bring the dodgy dealers down, locate their suppliers and supply foreign police forces with the evidence to prosecute them, and then both sides can go after all who bought from them.
What is clear, say researchers, is that the problem will not go away on its own. "And if we don't do anything to stop it," warns Parcak, "future generations are going to ask why."
Like they are going to ask why England and Wales did not deal with metal detectorists emptying sites into their pockets and onto eBay right under the noses of acquiescing archaeologists.

Vignette: Culture crime pays. Collectors provide the money.

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