Thursday, December 19, 2013

Archaeologist recognizes artifact stolen from museum, even though it is missing from the museum's list of stolen artifacts -- lessons to be learned

This story offers three key facts that hold important lessons for archaeologists, antiquities dealers and auction houses, and museum professionals concerned about stemming the looting of antiquities:

1. Buyers of looted antiquities often rely on archaeologists to ascertain authenticity and estimate the value of artifacts.
2. Archaeologists who recognize that a piece is looted can go to authorities and authorities may succeed in working collaboratively and internationally in recovering the looted piece.
3. The procedures for listing missing items stolen from a museum are either flawed or susceptible to manipulation. In this particular case it is not yet clear which. The torso might have been left off the list as a glitch, since the artifact apparently was broken into two pieces and one was left behind, it not being clear from this report if the artifact was broken by looters or had always been in the museum in two pieces. Or, as the referring of this case to the prosecutor implies, it is possible that the item was left off the list deliberately in the hope that no one would notice at least for long enough for the piece to be sold.

Point 3) obviously calls for some tightening up of the protocols and record-keeping to keep this kind of thing from happening.

Points 1) and 2) suggest that archaeologists, the trade, and museums could have a much more potent impact on the illicit trade if they took more seriously their connection to it and developed stronger policies to make the most of that connection. Here are a few changes that might have some bite:
a) archaeological associations and perhaps academic departments should establish clear guidelines as to what archaeologists ought to do when approached with pieces recognized as stolen -- or even suspected of possibly being stolen:
      1. agree to do the authenticating and valuation only if they first are able to find out who has approached them (name and contact info at least);
      2. while authenticating, photograph the artifact and documentation; and
      3. immediately go to authorities with that information, without alerting the artifact's possessor and scaring him/her off. The objective should be to make it possible for authorities to both recover the artifact and to apprehend the suspect.

b) Archaeologists who authenticated and estimated value on repeated occasions without taking these steps should be subject to professional sanctions (i.e., blackballed from hiring and publishing).

c) Auction houses and legitimate antiquities dealers do not have the same capacity to impose professional sanctions on those who do not do the right thing, but they should adopt the same rules about what to do about questionable pieces.

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