A three-pronged strategy from the government has made life increasingly difficult for Italy's would-be Indiana Joneses. Increased monitoring of archaeological sites means they are more likely to be caught; tougher penalties are in the parliamentary pipeline; and aggressive prosecution of museum curators and middlemen who trade in illegally excavated antiquities is drying up the market for their goods.
Last year, the carabinieri art squad discovered just 37 illegal digs, a tiny figure compared with the 1000 or so regularly found in the 1990s.
Assuming that the astonishing decline is not due to the carabinieri having cut back radically on site monitoring, the message here is clear: if the appropriate policies are put in place and -- crucially -- backed by adequate policing and enforcement resources, looting can be stopped. Dealers and collectors who suggest that the only feasible solution is to legalize the illicit market are wrong, as are archaeologists who put great stock in raising cultural awareness.
Of the three causes mentioned, it seems least likely that tougher penalties alone are responsible, since the decline has preceded the passage of stronger laws (though it may well be that even before the new laws have been passed, looters are being deterred by media attention). Nor is it likely that the high-profile prosecution of a small number of curators and middlemen -- really, only the Medici network -- could have done the trick by itself. While the Getty's buying spree surely poured oil on the fire, the demand for antiquities is primarily driven not by American museums but by the continued avidity of wealthy collectors worldwide; and the takedown of the Medici network must have left others intact.
That leaves increased monitoring of archaeological sites. The article provides no figures or additional information about how monitoring has improved, but whatever the specific measures -- better technology, additional personnel, information-sharing, etc -- they must have cost something. Those who are interested in assisting other countries where looting is out of control should focus on targeting their assistance on measures to improve the capacity for site monitoring. It is a lot less sexy than restoring a world heritage site or sponsoring archaeological digs, but much more cost-effective in preserving the past.