Friday 13 August 2021

Online Resources Fuel the Illegal Antiquities Trade in the Balkans

   Balkans means different things to different people

 While the Helsinki Gang up their ivory towers continue to use up grant money and public funds to promote their wishy-washy wouldn't-it-be-nice-ism postulating collaboration with artefact hunters, others are looking at the real effects of the phenomenon. A few years ago six Helsiniki-connected folk attacked a piece of work produced by Sam Hardy, but Hardy has continued to produce high quality research while the former just make lists and dot distribution maps of loose artefacts and bleat about how (allegedly), artefact hunters are misunderstood.

The Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) has a nice piece (David Klein, 'In the Balkans, Online Resources Fuel the Illegal Antiquities Trade', 12 August 2021 ) on a piece of work Sam Hardy has just diligently completed, about the Balkans. This is an area of Europe neglected by the so-called "European" Public Finds Recording Network, even when metal detectorists in the region decide to set up a recording scheme.
The position of the Balkan states between Middle East conflict zones and Western Europe makes it a natural transit route for traffickers, however, the illegal artifacts that pass through former Yugoslavia don’t just come from outside. There’s no shortage of looting of local sites as well. “It's one of those places where there are archaeological remains from a lot of societies that are interesting to powerful collectors in more powerful countries,” Hardy told the OCCRP. “It’s clear that lots of stuff is coming out of the ground as well as the material which is being funneled through the country.” Archaeologists in the region know that fact well, as they’ve come into conflict with the traffickers in the course of their work. “As elsewhere in the Balkan-Eastern Mediterranean region(s), so in former Yugoslavia, archaeologists are threatened by looters and there have been ‘physical clashes’ between looters and archaeologists,” the study said. “Organised crime groups who also handle drugs and arms, have been involved in cultural property crime in former Yugoslavia for decades.”
Archaeologists around the North Sea busy "collaborating" with the Collectio-Driven Exploitation of the archaeological record may avoid such friction, but at what cost to the archaeological record? Just as the ivory of their towers comes from the depletion of a threatened resource, so do the dots on their distribution maps. The OCCRP article points out that the illegal antiquities trade is a very lubcrative business and also due to the business connections of some believed to be involved, cannot be looked at separately from combating trafficking in drugs and weapons. In the Balkans:
The decade of war which tore the region apart in the 1990s, also gave a boost to the trade. “There is evidence of participation of members or former members of armed forces and paramilitary organisations in theft and looting and members or former members of security agencies and political parties in trafficking of cultural goods during and after the wars in former Yugoslavia,” according to the report. The looting of cultural property from active war zones is considered a war crime under the 1954 Hague Convention. However in comparison to other types of trafficking often performed by the very same groups, law enforcement has been notably lax. “Police officers are notorious as collectors of antiquities and protectors of ‘untouchable’ dealers and looters,” Hardy’s study said. “Meanwhile, politicians, politically-exposed persons and other members of the political/business elite are notorious for assembling private collections of looted antiquities, to launder dirty assets and to accumulate social capital.” While police turn a blind eye, looters and traffickers often hawk their illicit goods almost out in the open on public sites like Facebook, Ebay and Instagram as well as local sites. It’s not unique to the Balkans, but online forums have allowed local criminals to learn from counterparts around the world. “Online communities offer encyclopaedic knowledge, peer-to-peer learning/training, partnerships, supply chains,” Hardy said. “They can constitute real networks/groups and real source-to-market supply chains.”
Hardy makes the point that real solutions require changes in law enforcement not just in source countries but also in the wealthy market countries of western Europe and the US otherwise the "socio-economic harm that is done to source countries by market countries will continue – and will continue to be accompanied by socio-political harm”. Artefact collecting in fact is a form of cultural colonialism, some countries are being stripped of cultural assets in order to satisfy the whims of an affluent exploitative class of people intent on grabbing for their own use these desired objects and trophies, signifiers of their own economic status and power.

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