Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Want to Ruin the Market for Looted Syrian Antiquities? Here's One Way

This new CBS report joins other undercover reporting that includes cellphone photos sent by traffickers to the reporter showing artifacts for sale.  Which suggests an interesting idea I haven't heard mentioned yet for how to fight the illicit trade in such artifacts: gather such images, just as the CBS team did, and then post them on the internet, identifying them as illicit and effectively rendering the artifacts unsaleable -- at least unsaleable to what Matthew Bogdanos in the report names as "the four destination points of New York, London, Paris and Tokyo" (Bogdanos for reasons I don't understand leaves out the Gulf States, certainly a more likely destination for ISIS-looted artifacts than Tokyo).

There are some downsides to consider. Undercover work costs money -- though for this nowhere near the amount it costs to mount international investigations of smuggling networks (to say nothing of what we are spending to remotely monitor the ongoing looting of sites), since only one node is being accessed.  This would not be risk-free work -- no undercover work is ever risk free. Buyers would have to rotate and be replaced to avoid detection and harm. And if it were to be undertaken, those posing as foreign buyers would almost certainly need to work with the Turkish or Lebanese  police, which might prove difficult. But unlike seizures of artifacts coming into the US or UK or France, which constitute a loss of profit for the dealers that they can and do simply pass on to buyers as a cost of doing business, the immediate losers in the case of looted artifacts posted to the internet would be the smugglers, who have no way to pass on the cost. The passing on of images via cellphone photos would become a thing of the past pretty quickly. (Many smugglers have already turned to video-streaming or snapchat-like image sharing to try to leave no record on the phones or computers of complicit buyers, but undercover buyers could easily capture those images.) [UPDATE 10/17: the CBS news producer speaking at the Met says the fellow who sent her the cellphone photos is still sending her photos, so he obviously wasn't much deterred -- though it would be interesting to see what happened if CBS were to now post those photos!]

This would be a great program for UNESCO in coordination with INTERPOL, the FBI, the Blue Shield, and the carabinieri to undertake. [For reasons I hope are evident, it would not be something to be done by academics as part of a research project.] It might be sponsored by the Getty and dealers who ought to prefer this kind of exposure to the gotcha they've experienced from the use of the Medici archive to embarrass them. Maybe, instead of yet another meeting bewailing the loss of heritage, it would make sense to spend that money on some undercover work.

ADDENDUM: An interesting new article by Sam Hardy studying direct-to-buyer reports notes that

 After the publication of photographs of the royal graves at Copan in Honduras (Stuart, 1997), the site was looted (Agurcia Fasquelle, 1998) in a way that indicated collectors had effectively used National Geographic as a sales catalogue. Likewise, a hieroglyphic text and carving of a bound captive were extracted from one 1,300-year-old stela, and a single sceptre was extracted from another such stela, at Dos Pilas (Luke, 2005). Without perpetrators’ use of publicly accessible documents to identify the targets, the fact that these thefts were commissioned would have remained unknown.
So at least in some cases, the existence of publicly accessible images did not deter buyers. But these were objects in situ not yet looted, and so not brought to the attention of law enforcement as pieces for which to be on the lookout.


Cultural Property Observer said...

If it was that easy for the CBS producer and her ASOR/DOS Contractor archaeological companion to connect with a smuggler, why can't the Turkish police do the same thing, but then arrest them rather than run a story about them?

John Hooker FSA said...

The second I saw the mosaic, I burst into laughter. It is a really bad modern fake, as is everything that follows. I would have recognized all of that when I was fifteen years old!

I can imagine that gift shop owners might be annoyed, perhaps even asking for bans on imports of such shoddy work. Even calling them "fake" is giving them too much credit. "Tourist junk" might be a better term. Tourists get fooled by their greed and only see what they hope to see. I wonder what everyone else's excuse might be.

John Hooker FSA