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Ebay to block sales of looted art

The trade in looted artwork is in the news a lot at present, largely due to the action that took place in many archaeological sites & museums in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s government.
The British Museum have now requested that Ebay take steps to limit the use of their auction service for the illegal antiquities trade, although it is having trouble defining exactly how things should be classified as legal sales.

New York Times [1]

Museum Asks EBay to Block Some Sales

Published: October 30, 2004

LONDON, Oct. 29 – For centuries, London has served as an international market for the treasures and antiquities of empires.

Thus the looting of Iraq’s National Museum and numerous archaeological sites of Mesopotamia has incited British parliamentarians to crack down on the illicit antiquities trade – this time of its own national treasures. The pieces are recovered by a record number of Britons (about 10,000 each weekend) who scour field, forest and shire with metal detectors in hopes of finding some mud-encrusted relics.

The national treasure hunt here has put the British Museum in conflict with eBay, the Web site that provides a seamless international market to buy and sell almost anything. It’s also where hundreds of gold and silver rings, coins, jewelry and costume items from Roman Britain to medieval and Elizabethan times are changing hands, perhaps at a fraction of their worth, leaving the country and undermining the museum’s chances for acquiring or cataloging them.

At a news conference this week, the British Museum’s head of treasure, Roger Bland, called on eBay to agree quickly to “pull down” Web auctions of artifacts when British authorities identify them as potential national treasures, a step that eBay has been reluctant to undertake without legal proof that the items qualify as treasure.

That’s the rub.

In negotiations that have stretched over a year, eBay has agreed in principle that it doesn’t want illicit antiquities on its Web site and is willing to remove them provided the British authorities can state clearly which ones are illegal.

But British officials have not been able to give a clear definition, says Michael Lewis, Mr. Bland’s deputy at the British Museum.

Under the Treasure Act of 1996, any item of gold or silver that is 300 years old qualifies as treasure and has to be reported to a county coroner. The problem is, he explains, the act covers only items found after the law went into force on Sept. 24, 1997. All “treasure” found before that date is effectively exempted. How to tell the difference?

Mr. Lewis acknowledges that the British Museum has presented eBay with a difficult proposition. How can anyone establish when an ancient piece of gold or silver was dug up, he asks?

“If a Roman gold object is found in England somewhere and the dealer said he found it two years ago, we would know that because he would have reported it under the Treasure Act,” Mr. Lewis said. “But if he says he found it 10 years go, we wouldn’t be able to stop him from selling it; since there would be no evidence that he broke the law, we wouldn’t have a case.”

EBay says there are limits to what an auctioneer in cyberspace can do.

“We have a policy against illegal antiquities on our site; we don’t want them there,” Hani Durzy, an eBay spokesman, said by telephone from San Jose, Calif.

Mr. Durzy states that as a marketplace, the Web site is not in a good position to prevent trading in illicit antiquities “because we do not take possession of the item, and we can never prove, disprove or confirm the origin” of an item “because it is not ours.”

Both Mr. Durzy and Victoria Sayers, a spokeswoman for eBay in Britain, seemed a little exasperated Friday with the British Museum. EBay, said the company’s director of legal affairs, Rob Miller, presented a detailed proposal to the British Museum last August and has not heard back.

Ms. Sayers said she did not want to get into a “horrible war of words” over the state of communications between eBay and the British Museum, except to say, “We’d love to hear from them.”

She said eBay is willing to conclude an agreement with the treasure section of the British Museum, whereby the museum’s experts would identify any potentially illicit antiquity on eBay in a formal complaint to the arts and antiquities unit of the Metropolitan Police in London. The police would then investigate and notify eBay of an illegal item, and eBay would agree to take it down and notify the seller.

The negotiations continue, and Mr. Bland’s public appeal to eBay at the news conference this week appeared timed to bring greater pressure on the Internet company to respond more forcefully to British concerns that some of its treasures were literally flying out of the country.

The impetus for action to interdict the illicit antiquities trade came from 100 members of the House of Commons and House of Lords known collectively as the All-Party Parliamentary Archaeological Group.

They supported a bill submitted by an archaeologist member of Parliament, Richard Allan, whose legislative initiative had been languishing since 2002. Then, after the fall of Baghdad, the government of Prime Minister Tony Blair embraced it.

Friday, Mr. Allan was in Athens inspecting the New Acropolis Museum being erected in support of Greece’s longstanding diplomatic drive to repatriate the Elgin marbles, the priceless friezes that Pericles ordered for the Parthenon 2,400 years ago. They were brought to England in 1803 by Lord Elgin, British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, and later sold to the British Museum.

Mr. Allan, who holds a degree in archaeology from Cambridge University, said that with images showing treasures of Babylon riding on looters’ donkey carts, the bill got high-level attention.

“I am an opposition member, but suddenly a government minister stood up and said that she strongly supported my bill,” he said. Mr. Allan said he is mostly satisfied with eBay’s offer of cooperation, but he expressed some misgivings about whether police investigations could move swiftly enough to block auctions and apprehend violators before transactions were completed.

“I’m hoping we can get some kind of agreement,” he said. “What is hanging over eBay is that if they are notified and refuse to act, then they themselves are complicit in an illegal offense when the material is traded. They have got to look at their potential liability.”

The new law, of course, does not cover the Elgin marbles, which Britain has held on to despite Homeric efforts by successive Greek governments to repatriate them. The New Acropolis Museum, earthquake resistant and climate controlled, is designed to meet every objection the British Museum has raised over the decades against returning the friezes.

“Once the museum is built, the case will be much stronger,” Mr. Allan said, for Britain to part with one of the greatest archaeological treasures in the British Museum collection.