Saturday, July 16, 2011

A Few Thoughts on the Egypt-Abu Dhabi-New York-Michigan-Virginia Smuggling Network

There is sure to be a lot more to come, but there are already plenty of interesting facts surfacing about the international antiquities smuggling network based on stories like this one from CNN. Among other things:

  • the ring was truly international, not just in terms of the players involved, but more important, in terms of the objects they handled, which came not just out of Egypt but from Libya, Iraq, and Afghanistan as well. That is alarming, as it shows that social networks amongst this sort of criminal are not naturally restrained by national or linguistic borders. That degree of cosmopolitan flexibility also jibes with reports that a smuggling network that had been operating out of Iraq turned to smuggling Tunisian antiquities under recently-deposed Tunisian president Ben Ali. Whether that network turns out to be the same as this one remains to be seen, but in any case the implication for law enforcement is clear: there is a clear need to develop stronger means of cooperation between police in different countries. To that end, former Italian prosecutor Paolo Ferri had already begun (most recently at the annual ARCA meeting in Amelia, Italy) to call for antiquities trafficking to be recognized as falling under the category of international criminal conspiracy, a change that would enable intergovernmental police coordination like that which is possible for drug, human trafficking, and other such mafia-run smuggling operations.
  • The advent of metal detector usage by looters in Middle Eastern countries is alarming, but it is not clear to me what the impact of this new technology will be on archaeological sites. By making it easier for looters to find what they really want, it might even lead to less widespread destruction of context. (Much would depend on how precious metal objects are distributed around a site, which would differ of course by civilization, etc.) On the other hand, it might lead to many more sites completely unknown to archaeologists being pillaged. One might even envisage a Portable Antiquities Scheme down the road -- not that this would necessarily be an optimal outcome.
  • It is not clear what the customs agent means when he says there has been an escalation in Iraq, but the context implies he is talking about more digging in the last six months. That is news to me if true, and I'd be interested to hear what the Mesopotamian archaeologists or heritage professionals who may be reading this blog have to say.
  • Abu Dhabi is certain to take some steps to clean up its act, though what these might be I do not know, as I do not know what steps Switzerland took after the Medici case. Anyone out there know much about free ports?

1 comment:

David Gill said...

Is the Portable Antiquities Scheme a suitable model to follow? Has it stopped "looting" in England and Wales? Or is it merely a recording system? For some of the issues see here.
I suspect this "network" also has links with Spain and Ireland; England has also been mentioned. And if so are there associations with Italy's Operation Ghelas?