Sunday, April 26, 2015

If a reporter can go undercover and reveal a smuggling network, why aren't the police and UNESCO doing so?

Much of interest in this story. If the Lagash relief is in fact genuine, and was dug around 2006 in southern Iraq, its appearance for sale on the Turkish border in 2015 reminds us that massive looting occurred between 2003 and 2008 during the US occupation. It also reminds us that dealers are willing to stockpile looted artifacts, especially valuable but "hot" ones, for very long periods until a buyer can be found. And it shows that the networks connecting smugglers with buyers are not independent chains but involve trading between middlemen -- a reasonable structure given the nature of the demand (one doesn't want to miss the chance to take advantage of the intermittent appearance of a possible high-end buyer).

But the key take-home point is not made so much as illustrated by the reporter's having to go undercover in order to get the story, but being able to do so without much difficulty or worry. That shows that it is not hard to get to those dealing, but that the way to get to them is via locally-originated but sometimes multi-nationally pursued sting operations -- not, in other words, via high-profile but rare seizures by customs agents, nor the kind of arms-length work INTERPOL and UNESCO normally do. Antiquities smuggling networks are fluid, evolving, and adjustable, and this requires fluid and adjustable counter-operations.

UNESCO does appear to be taking steps in the right direction, including establishing the "crack team" mentioned but not detailed in the article. Presumably it comes out of these meetings held last November and includes the carabinieri, who actually do the kind of work needed. But there have been no major take-downs of international networks since then, despite the ease with which the reporter was able to discover so much. Is the crack team involved in operations, or merely trainings?

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