Antiquities smuggling still on the rise

NEW YORK – In his 2004 book, steal history, Roger Atwood described the systematic identification, infiltration and destruction of archaeological sites to plunder their riches and place them on the black market of the antiquities trade. In many ways, the book is a detective story that, rather than recounting a murder, describes the demolition, even erasure, of an ancient culture.

“Looting deprives a country of its heritage, but, worse still, it destroys everyone’s ability to know the past”, writes the author. “Looting erases the memory of the ancient world and turns its highest artistic creations into decorations, adornments on a shelf.”

Atwood clearly shows the intricate web of looters, gravediggers, middlemen and smugglers to the wealthy clientele seeking this unique work of art to showcase their sophistication and cultivate the envy of their peers. The book has received praise from the art world as well as from anthropologists and archaeologists around the world.

The problem has not diminished over the past two decades.

A limestone statue of the head of Assyrian King Sargon II, an eighth-century BC ruler, is one of more than 60 Iraqi cultural treasures smuggled into the United States that have been returned to the Republic of Iraq, said the Department of Homeland Security in Washington. , March 16, 2015, as shown in this undated photo provided by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Image Credit: Kelly Lowery, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement – Public Domain

A new campaign launched late last year by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) titled “The Real Price of Arthopes to dismantle the illicit trade in antiquities and cultural property by educating both the public and the artistic community and revealing what they call “the dark side of art trafficking”.

In a report titled “How much for the soul of a nation,” UNESCO reports that the illicit trade in antiquities and cultural property was approaching US$10 billion each year.

The report also states: “The real price of art campaign, in some cases the looting of archaeological sites, which fuels this traffic, is highly organized and constitutes a major source of funding for criminal and terrorist organisations.”

Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of UNESCO adds that “illicit trafficking is a flagrant theft of the memory of peoples. Raising awareness and calling for the greatest vigilance is necessary to fight against this largely misunderstood reality.

The new campaign marks the 50and anniversary of the 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property which “urges States Parties to take measures to prohibit and prevent the illicit traffic in cultural property cultural. It provides a common framework for States Parties on the measures to be taken to prohibit and prevent the import, export and transfer of cultural property.

The convention was the culmination of a 20-year effort to create an international treaty to combat the illicit trafficking of cultural property.

“UNESCO’s mission is to arouse the interest of the whole world in the fight against this illicit trafficking of cultural property, through actions that contribute to raising awareness in the international community”, declared Sunna Altnoder, Head of the Heritage Unit furniture and museums of UNESCO in Frame. “In recent years, illicit trafficking has increased exponentially, and this phenomenon has worsened during the health crisis.”

But the illegal trade in antiquities and cultural property is more lucrative than ever.

“The craze for these objects whose prices have exploded; the leniency of sanctions and the vulnerability of sites in conflict zones are all challenges to be met in order to stem the trafficking of what some call ‘blood antiquities'”, writes Agnès Bardon of UNESCO in the UNESCO Courier.

In interaction with law enforcement around the world, tens of thousands of illicit cultural assets have been seized. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has compounded the problem and extended the challenge of banning the trade in antiquities.

The Antiquities Trafficking and Heritage Anthropology Research (ATHAR) project, a team of anthropologists and heritage experts specializing in digital networks for art trafficking, has observed an upsurge in the trade in cultural objects, particularly those from the Middle East and North Africa.

Just this afternoon, Customs at Cairo International Airport seized 34 ancient coins from the possession of a passenger. The pieces come from different historical periods, dating as far back as the 1200s AD. The Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, Dr. Mostafa Waziri, explained that as soon as the Archaeological Units Center became aware of the pieces, they were seized by the airport authorities and the detained passenger.

Pictured (from left to right): seated Shiva, seated Parvati and the seated figure of Ganesha. Image via Manhattan District Attorney

Meanwhile, in a separate study from the Journal of Computer Applications in Archaeology, researchers used open-source intelligence to sift through publications and texts to analyze “the excavations and illicit trafficking of archaeological objects (and counterfeits) in the Balkan and Eastern Mediterranean region(s). from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia and Slovenia.

The study uses social network analysis, a statistical technique that identifies the structure of relationships between individuals to find specific information nodes and actors in the frame that move information, and ultimately physical objects, around .

The research “shows how artifact hunters target sites, features and objects; reveal collectibles and/or marketable items; acquire equipment; forming patron-client relationships, peer partnerships, and other cooperative groups; engaging in transnational activity; crowdsourcing techniques for smuggling; crowdsourcing ways to avoid being caught or punished; and meet the police.

The Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), a global network of investigative journalists reporting on and exposing crime and corruption, noted that the Balkans are indeed a nexus for the trade in illicit cultural objects in Middle East to Western Europe.

“It’s one of those places where there are archaeological remains from many societies that are of interest to powerful collectors from the most powerful countries,” criminologist Sam Hardy told OCCRP. “It’s clear that a lot of things are coming out of the ground as well as the materials that are flowing across the country.”

Last month, London art restorer Neil Perry Smith was extradited to the United States and charged by the Manhattan District Attorney over an alleged bootlegging conspiracy that also involved jailed art dealer Subash Kappor.

“Without restorers to disguise stolen relics, there would be no laundered items for sale to antiquities smugglers,” Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance Jr. said in a for-profit there. someone who reassembles and restores these looted parts to give the criminal enterprise a veneer of legitimacy. Thanks to our Antiquities Trafficking Unit and our partners at HSI, Smith will now face justice on American soil, and we look forward to seeing alleged ringleader Subhash Kapoor inside a courtroom. of Manhattan in the near future. In the meantime, we will continue to pursue these cases vigorously and return these stolen items to the countries from which they were stolen.

The stolen items which included a seated Shiva, a seated Parvati and a seated Ganesha figure have now been repatriated to Indonesia, Australia and India. The Manhattan DAs office said it had returned 393 antiques to 11 countries in the past 12 months, including the now famous “coffee table” from the Nemi ships.