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Preventing the trade in looted artefacts

The trial of Marion True has brought the acquisitions by museums under public scrutiny. What we really need though, is a more organised way of tracing which artworks are of dubious provenance before they are acquired, so that they don’t even enter museums in the first place. High profile prosecutions against individual institutions might create attention, but they are of limited use at actually solving the problem.

From:
The New Statesman [1]

To catch a thief
Monday 15th August 2005
Observations on art treasures by Phil Chamberlain

When it comes to the search for ancient antiquities, forget Indiana Jones or Lara Croft. Think instead about the Italian tombaroli. These poor labourers earn pennies raiding tombs for relics that are eventually sold overseas to museums and private collectors for thousands of pounds. Almost every country with ancient artefacts has its own tombaroli, stripping sites of treasure to feed a ready market in the west.

Last month the trial of Marion True, curator of antiquities at the J Paul Getty Museum in LA, began. She stands accused of knowingly receiving stolen goods and using false documents to help launder artefacts acquired by the Getty from a private collection. A coup for the Italians, it is yet to be matched here, even though London is a prime destination in the multimillion-pound trade. According to Detective Sergeant Vernon Rapley, head of the art and antiques unit at the Metropolitan Police, the capital is full of anti-quities “trampolining” between different dealers. “They just go from one dealer to another, and in effect they are cleansed before they go to America,” he says.

The issue hit the headlines after the invasion of Iraq, when there was concern over the looting of its museums. But Iraq is just the tip of the iceberg. Last November, Robin Coningham of the University of Bradford reported that 90 per cent of the main archaeological sites in Pakistan and Iran had been looted, and many of the stolen goods had been channelled through London. The value of this trade is increasingly attracting the attention of organised criminals, who use the same routes to smuggle in drugs, guns and people. The objects can act as collateral – a lot less obvious than bundles of money.

In 2003, a parliamentary select committee report found that “systems, resources and co-ordination across different agencies for checking both imports and exports seem deeply unsatisfactory”. An example is the failure to establish a national database of stolen or tainted cultural objects. It was recommended by a select committee in 2000, sought by the trade and academics, and promised by the Home Office and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. The idea was that traders would be able to check the legitimacy of an object by consulting the database.

Last year, to the fury of its own experts, the government shelved the idea, claiming that an independent appraisal had concluded it would not have been effective. But a copy of this appraisal, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, shows strong support for the database; to the police in particular, the plan signalled that the government was serious in cracking down on the problem. The government did make a big show of backing a private member’s bill that became the Dealing in Cultural Objects Act 2003. However, it appears no one has yet been prosecuted successfully under this law.

Ultimately, the trade is being fuelled by museums and dealers in the west, and experts say they must put their house in order. Dr Neil Brodie, of the McDonald Institute’s Illicit Antiquities Research Centre at Cambridge, said: “If you go to museums and ask to see their China collection they’ll bring it out for you, but if you ask for their acquisition records the door will be slammed in your face. It is all secret and there needs to be transparency.”

And while action is needed to stop the trade between dealers, auction houses and museums, the internet is going unchecked. Auction websites are full of rare objects. Richard Allan, the former MP whose bill became the act, is pessimistic about the chances of progress: “Customs and police agendas are set by politicians, and I can’t really see politicians putting this issue at the top of their agenda in this parliament.”