About Paul Barford

Paul Barford is a British archaeologist living and working in Warsaw Poland. Since the early 1990s a primary interest has been research on artefact hunting and collecting and the market in portable antiquities in the international context.

Archaeological Looting is an Environmental Issue

The supporters of the indiscriminate market in dug-up ancient relics are fixated on representing the fundamental issues at stake as those of “ownership”, whether by a state (by their use of labels such as “retentionist”, “Nationalist”) or private individuals (accompanied by a lot of “cold dead hands”-type fighting talk). What lobbyists of this persuasion strenuously fight shy of is admitting that the current pace of depletion of the finite and fragile archaeological record by looting is a non-sustainable misuse of a precious resource. Looting is not an ownership issue, but an environmental issue.

The attempts to deflect the attention of the public and policy makers from the environmental aspects of the issues is of course a cynical manipulation. Lobbyists know they will get no sympathy from presenting the activity they are engaged in as the destroyer of a finite resource. That is why they will always play down the role of the indiscriminate market in the erosion. This is why they play on alarmist notions that “the enemy” wants to take away private property, and they are fighting the good fight to protect property rights. (Somehow they miss out the step of the argument which explains how they “got” the rights over the dismembered bits of the archaeological heritage taken clandestinely from the citizens of other countries.)

Archaeological organizations should be promoting a more accurate picture of the real issue at stake, the erosion and destruction of the archaeological resource by looting. On my blog, I suggest that perhaps there is a need for a World Archaeological Resource Awareness Day (WARAD?) that could in some way focus attention on the issue of the nature and importance of the archaeological record and how prone to damage it is. While we can do little against such threats as dessication, soil erosion, coastal erosion and some other natural causes of damage to archaeological sites, there are some forms of damage which arguably are avoidable. Looting is one of them. Public attention should be brought to the fact that current modes of indiscriminate collecting are shielding the looters from scrutiny and giving them a market. A worldwide awareness day – perhaps in some way linked to Earth Day at the end of April – may well be a useful tool in the process of public education about the damage caused by looting and indiscriminate and irresponsible collecting of archaeological artefacts.

Originally posted on March 28, 2010

I am Greek and I want to go home

The Independent Movement for the Repatriation of Looted Greek Antiquities has produced a video: ‘I am Greek and I Want to go Home’

Photography, Concept and Artwork by Ares Kalogeropoulos

Original Music (“Rise”) by Ares Kalogeropoulos

It can be seen alongside this one, take a good look at this message to the British:

Help make them go viral.


Your voice for cultural property in Greece

Here is an effective  public-awareness video produced by the  Association of Greek Archaeologists, which has recently appeared on Greek television news:

The campaign’s central message — “Monuments have no voice. They must have yours” — is a reaction to deep cultural budget cuts being made as part of the austerity measures imposed on Greece by the European economic establishment. It is a reminder that the world is full of no-questions-asked collectors willing to give culture criminals considerable sums of money to possess their own private piece of knocked-off “ancient art”. Such buyers are not only a threat to the heritage of today’s citizens but that of their children too. The hands in the video are those of the agents of the collectors and dealers of the international antiquities market.

Belize 6, Bulgaria 1, Dodge City 50

The governments of Belize and Bulgaria have requested (under article 9 of the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Cultural Property) the help of the US in curbing the smuggling of artefacts out of the countries.

The details of these requests can be found on the AIA webpage: “Preserving Archaeology in Belize and Bulgaria: Cultural Property Advisory Committee (CPAC) to Consider New Bilateral Agreements to Protect Belizean and Bulgarian Archaeological Heritage“.

As can be seen, there is an opportunity for the public to submit additional comments (the public is already represented on the Committee) concerning their reflections on issues raised in Section 303 (a).1 of the CCPIA. This can be done via the internet (while comments sent by snail mail or hand delivered are accepted, those sent by email and fax will be rejected) until a minute before midnight on 2nd November 2011. The links to the relevant document folders are:

After just under a week of comments submissions, the response has been poor. There are six public comments in the Belize folder (all in support of an MOU to help combat smuggling), and almost fifty comments in the Bulgarian folder (all but one rejecting the idea of an MOU to prevent smuggling of certain types of dug-up material from archaeological sites from Bulgaria to the US antiquities market). Does this accurately reflect US public opinion on antiquities smuggling and the importance of efforts to stop it?

SAFE members and other readers of this blog might consider adding their voice to the public debate to give the CPAC a more accurate picture of public concern and interest in these matters. Those who are unsure what Section 303(a)1 of the Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act says can find it on the State Department website, or clicking here. I have also set out what I think are the main points of the Bulgaria request in relation to Section 303(a)1 here. This is with reference to Bulgaria, but I think the first four comments in the Belize folder are a useful model for those wishing to comment on both.

If you care about looting and antiquity trafficking and think this should be more widely discussed in the public arena, please take the time to submit a comment to support these requests for assistance from one state party of the 1970 Convention to another.

Vignette: help put a stop to antiquities from Belize and Bulgaria disappearing into the black hole of the market for illicit antiquities.

Some Looted Antiquities Return to Nineveh


Alaa al-Din Burhan, spokesperson for the Department of Antiquities in Nineveh has announced that today (18th August) they have received 23 Antiquities that were stolen after the looting that occurred after the U.S. invasion in 2003. Security agencies seized the antiquities in the possession of a smuggling gang that was recently arrested in Mosul. He added that in July:

107 artifacts out of 1,200 stolen pieces held by Washington were returned to Baghdad and these are now being redistributed to their original provinces. Some of the pieces received from Washington date back to the Babylonian times, including necklaces and painted pottery.

Rizan Ahmed, ‘Looted antiquities returned to Nineveh‘, AK News (Kurdistan News Agency), 18/08/2011.

Map: Nineveh in Nineveh province (in the ‘Kurdish’ region) near Mosul (BBC – edited)

Connecticut: FBI Investigate Stolen Tang Chinese Heads


The FBI is investigating, but mystery surrounds two Chinese Tang dynasty sandstone heads of Lohan “valued at $800,000 each” which were recently stolen from a US private collection:

The two Louhan sculptures, which are approximately 1,000-years-old, were stolen from an undisclosed location in Westport, Connecticut. The sandstone works of art are two of only a handful known to exist and both date to China’s Tang Dynasty. The sculptures are 15 inches high and 15 inches long and weigh between 55 and 70 pounds each. Westport is a coastal town of about 25,000 residents and one of the wealthiest locations in the US. Police are not disclosing when the sculptures were taken or the exact location of the private collection.

The story has attracted no little attention in the newspapers, even reaching the daily main in the UK. Most of the attraction seems to be that items like this which, from the photos at least, are singularly unattractive to look at are worth such a lot on the “ancient art” market. But it seems to me one rather important question is not being addressed in the media.

It seems to me quite unlikely that these heads were dug up in Connecticut by local pot-hunters. The question therefore arises where they had been discovered and how – and when – they reached a US private collection. Why are there just the heads of what were clearly at one time complete figures? What happened to the rest? Did the art collector throw them away, or the dealer who sold them to him? Or the person that removed them from wherever they were to be found in China (and where was that?) so they could end up in some rich guy’s collection?

The released photos admittedly do not really show the items to their best advantage. What they do show are two heads with grey matter smeared all over them which certainly has the appearance in the photos of soil. It looks like these was still soil adhering to these sculptures when they were photographed. If that is what it is, it seems rather unlikely that they are still in that state if they had passed through some distinguished pre-1930s collection. Are not the FBI looking for some items which in fact are relatively freshly dug-up ?

I assume that before the FBI start looking for where these items are now, they looked into where they should be; after all if they find them they surely cannot give them back to a person who cannot document that they are indeed their legal possessor – like showing they had been legally exported from China. So, how did these items enter the USA, and when?

Photo: Have you seen these missing heads (AP, via Daily Mail)?

Launch of "Mortimer" Website

Launch of Mortimer Website Jul 25, 2011

“Mortimer” is proud to announce the launch of the new Mortimer Petition website. Mortimer is named in honour of the great pioneer of popular, public archaeology, and TV Personality of the Year two years running, Sir Mortimer Wheeler. Mortimer is not affiliated to any political party, commercial company or existing archaeological organisation. It is membership led and volunteer driven and has three simple principles…

1) People of the past shaped our environment of today and are shaping the environment of the future. Therefore we all have a duty to preserve and enhance the quality of our environment because, once our natural and historic treasures are lost, they are lost to everyone and lost forever.

2) We best preserve and enhance our environment by working in an inclusive, sustainable partnership with all members of our communities, to value our past histories, heritage and the environment within which they are found and by promoting the study of the science, history, natural history and archaeology which help us explore, understand and enjoy them.

3) We also believe that everyone who takes part in this journey of shared discovery and who is passionate about it, deserves a single clear voice which isn’t afraid to tell those in power how important Our Past is to Our Future.

Mortimer is that voice.

Alleged Smuggling Ring Investigated


U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) agents claim to have dismantled an organization responsible for conspiring to smuggle Egyptian Middle Eastern and Asian antiquities into the United States and conspiring to launder money in furtherance of smuggling. Three people were arrested, two antiquities dealers and a collector, while a fourth person, a Jordanian antiquities dealer is considered a “fugitive”.

Most of the antiquities concerned apparently originated in Egypt, but they were reportedly smuggled into the United States from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. The objects were allegedly provided with false provenances, which stated that the Egyptian antiquities were part of an old collection dating back to the 1960s.

“This is a ground breaking case for Homeland Security Investigations. It is the first time a cultural property network is dismantled within the United States,” said Special Agent in Charge [James T.] Hayes. “In addition to smuggling cultural property this case also focuses on money laundering. This is notable because the illicit sale of cultural property is the third most profitable black market industry following narcotics, and weapons.”
“This office will continue to vigorously enforce cultural property laws that restrict the unauthorized movement of antiquities,” said U.S. Attorney [Loretta E.] Lynch. “Antiquities dealers and collectors are on notice that the smuggling of cultural patrimony will not be tolerated.”

Articles seized include a sarcophagus, a mummy case, several tomb models of boats, but also many ‘minor artefacts’ such as glass vessels and thousands of ancient coins.

More information:
ICE News Release: ‘ICE makes arrests and seizes cultural artifacts stolen from Egypt‘, July 14, 2011;
Paul Barford blog: Egyptian Antiquities Allegedly Smuggled From Dubai to US, 14 July 2011;
Looting Matters: Dealers Charged Following Egyptian Seizures, 14 July 2011.

Vignette: watching the dealers (Holyland Numismatics)

The Senator and a US No-Questions-Asked Antiquities Market

New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand recently supported a seminar organized to question the rationale behind part of the US International Cultural Property Protection Program. I found that disturbing and have written to her to ask why, and whether she supports this program and feels it should be strengthened or disabled. Members of SAFE – particularly those based in New York – might want to do the same.

Britain’s Portable Antiquities Scheme Debated in Archaeological Journal

The latest edition (volume 20) of the Papers of the Institute of Archaeology has a timely debate, with a typically thought-provoking and balanced keynote paper by David Gill which asks the fundamental question: “The Portable Antiquities Scheme and the Treasure Act: Protecting the Archaeology of England and Wales?“. This follows the usual format of academic debate in a printed journal, the keynote article is followed by five independently written invited responses, to which the original author then replies. Although a normal printed peer-reviewed journal, PIA also has an open access policy and the texts are available in full online:

Keynote text by David W. J. Gill: The Portable Antiquities Scheme and the Treasure Act: Protecting the Archaeology of England and Wales?

Trevor Austin: The Portable Antiquities Scheme and the Treasure Act: Protecting the Archaeology of England and Wales? A Response.

Paul Barford: Archaeology, Collectors and Preservation: a Reply to David Gill

Gabriel Moshenska: Portable Antiquities, Pragmatism and the ‘Precious Things’

Colin Renfrew: Comment on the Paper by David Gill

Sally Worrell: The Crosby Garrett Helmet

David W. J. Gill: Reply to Austin, Barford, Moshenska, Renfrew and Worrell

Apparently Roger Bland, head of the PAS, was – as the editor put it – “less willing to contribute” a response to what Gill had written, which in the circumstances is a great pity.

The five comments are notable for their varied approach. Renfrew’s was quite short but raised a few cogent points in connection with what Gill had written, Worrell’s concentrated on a single aspect and does not add much to what Gill had said. Austin, representing UK metal detectorists (as head of the National Council for Metal Detectorists) does his hobby no favours by an aggressive attack on the British archaeological establishment, but simply ignoring most of the points Gill made. Moshenska also tries to defend artefact hunters against straw men. Barford is typically long-winded, but identifies part of the problem raised by Gill in the current weakness of position of the PAS and postulates strengthening it by embodying it more firmly in legislation.

I discuss some of the contributions at more length on my blog.

"Value of Amateurs" and Heritage Protection

An ACCG-sponsored PR Newswire press release proclaims that the: ‘Value of Amateurs Is Evident as Financial Woes Cripple Heritage Preservation‘. While there is no doubt that the volunteer sector has never been more active and welcome in heritage preservation initiatives than today, there are dangers inherent in states relying more explicitly upon it (see Heritage Action’s ‘Opposing certain heritage threats now “unaffordable”‘ about the situation in the UK).

Sadly the coin-dealing author of the text under discussion takes the subject “preservation of the heritage” to be a narrow artefact-centred issue. What, however, is of more general concern is the broader issue of protection of sites and monuments from erosion and destruction. Among the agents of that destruction is the looting of those sites and monuments that produces the loose objects that US collectors and dealers do not want to see in the hands of the countries from which they were taken because they allegedly are “unable or unwilling to preserve their heritage”, citing things like the recent damage caused to buildings in Pompeii by exposure to the weather.

While it is obvious to us all that it is far easier to provide a roof over a handful of coins than the excavated area of half an entire town, ancient coin dealer Sayles evidently wishes to see them as equivalents. There seems however to be a regrettable a confusion here between those amateurs who volunteer to work on conservation projects all over the world, or who as amateur archaeologists carry out and publish their own work, or in groups take part in larger scale projects and help with the inventorying of sites and monuments for the public record (for example the work of amateur groups here, here , here and here ), and the group to whom Sayles evdently refers. He means antiquity collectors, the individuals who out of acquisitive greed and the urge to possess purchase, often no questions asked, dugup ancient artefacts. There should be no confusion between the two. Collectors of dugup antiquities like so many postage stamps in an album are no more “amateur archaeologists” than collectors of costume Barbie dolls are ethnographers, or wild bird-egg snatchers are ornithologists, or poached elephant ivory merchants ecologists.

Mr Sayles presumably would argue that by including them in their collections, the Louvre was only trying to “preserve” the relief fragments ripped out of Theban Tomb 15, I doubt though that many would accept that the situation is as simple as that, especially seen from the point of view of what that site (tomb) now looks like. That a Memphis temple has problems with groundwater is neither here nor there as to whether they and other looted artefacts should not go back.

There are many ways amateurs and volunteers can help preserve the heritage, joining SAFE is one of them, buying looted and smuggled artefacts and hoarding them at home is not.

Spanish Illicit Antiquities Investigation

In Spain a series of arrests and searches of premises have been carried out aimed at smashing a ring that operated in several Spanish provinces allegedly dealing in illicit antiquities looted from archaeological sites. The ring had clients in the United States, Britain and Germany. There have been 81 arrests and 115 searches so far and thousands of Roman, Medieval and Islamic as well as some prehistoric artefacts have been seized. The artefacts seized include many coins. The investigation also reveals some of the less savoury aspects of the Spanish trade in dugup ancient antiquities. In the modern trade as a whole both deception through fakes as well as dubious auction practices (shill bidding) are endemic. Very often those involved in the trade are also involved in other illegal activities run by criminal organizations. The breaking up of this ring shows clearly that the Spanish market is no exception. Police found a sophisticated workshop that faked archaeological items that they sold as genuine on Internet auction sites or sold directly.

Spanish police connect the dismantled organization’s kingpin with a network that launders money through illegal sales of precious metals such as silver and gold.Cops have seized more than 120 kilos of gold and silver, 900,000 euros ($1.2 million) in cash, equipment for smelting metal as well as a machine gun and six other firearms. Meanwhile, around a hundred bank accounts have been frozen in a score of banks, one of them in Switzerland.

For further discussion of these ongoing investigations and their implications see here and here.

Source: EFE, ‘Spanish Cops Bring Down Ring That Sold Looted Antiquities‘ Latin American Herald Tribune, December 11,2010.

The US Antiquities Trade and National Values

Twelve US congressmen mainly from Wisconsin and Texas have signed a letter to the State Department with a number of demands concerning recent and upcoming cultural property bilateral agreements with China, Cyprus, Italy and Greece. A facsimile of this letter on US Congress letterhead dated Sept 27th 2010, is posted on the Ancient Coin Collectors’ Guild website and it is difficult not to conclude that the ACCG’s lobbyists are behind this disgraceful initiative. I give a transcription of the full text with a longer discussion on my blog.

The authors question whether the State Department is properly respecting the “legislative intent” of the Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act This legislation which was drafted by Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, furthers our national interest in promoting cultural access and trade which is central to our nation’s values”. The letter’s authors demand that “there should be no expansion of the MOU to include coins, commonplace items that stand outside the scope of the legislative intent behind CPIA”.

The twelve signatories are: Paul Ryan (R-WI), Thomas Petri (R-WI), John Culberson (R-TX), Michael Burgess (R-TX), Sam Johnson (R-TX), Lamar Smith (R-TX), Ciro Rodriguez (D-TX), John Campbell (R-CA), Jo Ann Emerson (R-MO) , Rob Wittman (R-VA), John Spratt (D-SC) and Joe Courtney (D-CT). What is notable is that Ryan, Petrie and Culberson are recipients of ACCG Friends of Numismatics Awards.

Surely the “legislative intent” of an act called the Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act is that it is intended to implement the measures laid down in the Convention mentioned in its title, in other words the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Cultural Property. Certainly the intent of the Convention is the trade in illegally exported cultural property should not become “central” to the national values of any of the States party.

It seems to me that in their haste to prove themselves Friends of Numismatics by reducing the scope of the implementation of the 1970 Convention, these twelve seem to lost sight of some of those key national values. ‘Implementing the Convention’ surely means implementing the Convention and not implementing a law which in effect says the convention is all very fine but if we actually prohibit and prevent our citizens from being involved in the import of illicitly exported items and illicit transfer of cultural property, certain key national values are going to suffer. I wonder what those key values could be?

The illicit import and transfer of cultural property involves stealing. I hardly think theft from others is a key national value of the United States.

The illicit import and transfer of cultural property involves dishonourable trade practices, lies on the customs declaration forms, neither do I think dishonesty and dishonour can be considered a key American value.

The illicit import and transfer of cultural property taken from other countries is a deep disregard and disrespect for the rights of the citizens of the countries from which they are illegally removed, since when was disregard and disrespect for others a key US national value?

I wonder to what extent the twelve signatories of this letter are in fact aware that restrictions only apply to coins without documentation of legal export which can be supplied by two types of pieces of paper? There is no restriction on the movement through US borders of coins of the designated categories with the proper paperwork, nor of coins from those countries which do not fall in the designated categories. There is no sign in the letter that the Congressmen were appraised of this. On the contrary, from the wording of what they wrote it looks very much like that they had allowed themselves to be misinformed about the nature of the restrictions.

It seems to me that the 12 members of congress who signed this document are being wholly disingenuous when asserting that their letter is merely an attempt “to strengthen CPIA”. Their demands (they call them requests) are not only attempting to undermine the CCPIA, but also the intent of the 1970 UNESCO Convention. Careful, the world is watching how US Congressmen value accession to an international Convention.

The ACCG urges “Ancient coin collectors who are represented in Washington by any of these Members of Congress are encouraged to contact the local or national offices and thank them for their support“. I believe that in the United States there are many who do not collect antiquities and care for the protection of the world’s archaeological record from commercial exploitation by looters to fuel the US no-questions-asked market in ancient artefacts. I hope that those who are represented in Washington by any of these twelve Members of Congress contact the local or national offices and ask them just what they think they are doing. Is that how they represent the decent folk of their nation?

Photos of the Friends of Numismatics receiving ACCG “Friends of Numismatics” wall plaques from the ACCG website.

Archaeological Conservation Success in England?

Foreign collectors of portable antiquities often hold up the Portable Antiquities Scheme of England and Wales as a model that should be applied by other countries which are a source of the antiquities they want to collect. As one of them said recently:

PAS is a system better able to weather lean budgets because it relies on finders to help record objects and the State only retains for its own purposes those objects it deems significant. There are no curatorial expenses associated with most objects as these are returned to the finder and/or landowner after recordation.

(see my comments here).

The occasion for this lauding was the announcement that this week the Scheme made its 400 000th record of artefacts reported by a metal detecting artefact hunter and collector. Yet from the point of view of the conservation of the archaeological resource a more important statistic would be the number of items that despite the Scheme are being dug out of the archaelogical sites of England and Wales without record. An attempt to estimate those numbers (not an unreasonable one in my opinion) is thought provoking. By how much would that estimate have to be lowered to make the results acceptable as any kind of conservation success?

In England and Wales there are believed to be (PAS figures) about 8000 metal detector using artefact hunters out there sweeping likely looking fields for collectable and saleable items. In thirteen years, the Portable Antiquities Scheme has seen 400 000 of them. That is an average of 31000 a year. That’s less than four objects a year per detector user. Is this all they are finding? Many of them can find that many recordable items on a single productive site in a single afternoon’s detecting. How many fishermen would be out there on the lakes and rivers in all weathers and continue their hobby if they only caught one fish every three months for thirteen years? What is not being shown to the PAS in the course of the despoiling of Britain’s archaeological record merely as a source of collectable geegaws for entertainment and profit? What kind of a “conservation success” is that?

Stolen Indian Statue Sold in New York, Despite being on Interpol Stolen Art Database

Interpol news 22 April 2010, The statue of two Asian deities was stolen in September 2009 from the ruins of a temple in Atru in the Province of Rajasthan in Western India. At the request of the National Central Bureau (NCB) in New Delhi, the stone sculpture was added to INTERPOL’s Stolen Works of Art database. Despite that, it was sold by an ” international auction house having bases in New York and London”. It was only located in New York after it was spotted by somebody in New Delhi featured in a magazine advertising its sale. By this time the object was already in the port of New York while being prepared for shipment to England. In the nick of time, the sculpture was seized by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents (on Friday 16 April), and Indian and US authorities are now liaising over the return of the statue.

While the inclusion of the statue on INTERPOL’s Stolen Works of Art database did not directly lead to its identification, the fact that an object is recorded does help facilitate and speed up investigations by involved countries,” said Karl Heinz Kind, Co-ordinator of INTERPOL’s Stolen Works of Art unit at its General Secretariat headquarters in Lyon. “This also underlines the necessity for auction houses and all those dealing in cultural property to regularly check INTERPOL’s Stolen Works of Art database, which is publicly available and free of charge, to ensure that they avoid taking possession of stolen goods,” added Mr Kind. INTERPOL’s Stolen Works of Art database has been available to the public since August 2009, and now has more than 1,300 individuals currently registered for free access.

It seems though from recent news items that there is very little evidence than major auction houses are at all concerned about where the items they sell come from.

Photo: the stolen relief seized at New York Airport.

Context and the Morgantina Hoard

The exhibition in Italy of the Morgantina Hoard has been in the news recently and David Gill discusses this on the Looting Matters blog (“Morgantina Hoard: on display in Rome “). This was a group of silver vessels that was reportedly dug up illegally some time before 1981 when the Metropolitan Museum of New York bought it. It turns out that it had probably been looted from the ruins of a Greek house in Morgantina, Sicily, and excavations in the building – on the basis of information received from artefact hunter Giusseppe Mascara – revealed traces of severe looting and two holes were found from which it seems the silver vessels had been taken. Eventually the Metropolitan Museum agreed to the material returning to Italy.

Gill points out that knowing precisely where this particular group of objects (or rather two separate groups of objects now muddled up) had come from allowed them to be seen in the context of other items from that same context and its surroundings, which reveals the capability of that other information to add to our understanding of the objects themselves.

Archaeologist Malcolm Bell had found names scratched on the bottom of several vessels. These showed that the silver had belonged to a Morgantina family, named Eupolemos. The same name was found inscribed on a lead tablet in the Morgantina museum, and the tablet is the deed to a house in the area where the excavations had revealed the looters’ holes.

Old collections: to what extent is it a convenient myth?

Dealers in unprovenanced archaeological material frequently evoke the argument that a lot of the material on the market today comes from the dismantling of old collections; collecting of archaeological artefacts has been going on, they say, since the Renaissance. In debate they can even show examples of such long-curated finds. Dealers assure buyers that this means that there are a good many legitimate artefacts on the market (see for example the websites of UK dealer Guy Rothewell, and that of Hicham Aboutaam). The pro-collecting lobby then argue that the concerns of the preservation lobby over the number of unprovenanced artefacts on the market today are exaggerated, holding that many items being collected today are from dismembered old collections. They insist that “unprovenanced does not necessarily mean looted”. While that is of course true, it is clear that the buying and selling of unprovenanced archaeological artefacts with neither dealer or buyer asking where those items ultimately came from is one of the factors which shields the trade in illicitly obtained artefacts from scrutiny.

Preservationists point out that the market in antiquities has been undergoing massive expansion in recent decades. In addition, people are collecting the types of minor antiquities that were not collected in any quantity in the past and so are not available from old collections or abandoned dealers’ stock. It is clear that increased demand for artefacts has forced traders to make up shortfall by the addition of new freshly dug up material (often illegally exported) to their stocks. The degree to which this is taking place is the subject of controversy. With facts and figures short on the ground, neither side can demonstrate grounds for either caution or optimism.

Recently however figures have been published which seem to resolve this issue quite decisively in the case of one commonly collected class of ancient dug-up artefacts, coins. In November last year, the Santa Fe-based Cultural Policy Research Institute published the results of its research, “Project on Unprovenanced Ancient Objects in Private US Hands“. The figures presented there have “been developed with help from some of the most knowledgeable sources in the area”. Apart from the main topic of its deliberations, the report contains an estimate of the number of “unprovenanced Greek and Roman coins in private hands’, which however, since they are “not routinely of interest to AAMD Member institutions” are not discussed. Nevertheless an estimate is given of the likely number of such items currently in private hands to show what a resource for historical research they could comprise. The CPRI gives the total as “not less than 700,000 (200,000-300,000 Greek, 500,000-600,000 Roman)”. So nearly three quarters of a million coins which have all come from somewhere, obviously quite a lucrative market with some of those coins going for four or five figure sums.

The qualification “not less” however is an important one. This figure can now be compared with the number of fresh coins from abroad known to be being exported into the US market. In a study of the US coin market, Elkins mentions one documented case from Frankfurt airport in 1999 where one dealer in a matter of a few weeks illegally exported from Bulgaria to the USA a ton of ancient metal detected coins. Coins are imported by numerous US wholesalers and dealers from many countries and through many airports, but Elkins estimated that the Frankfurt shipments alone had contained 350 000 coins. To put that into perspective, that is fifty percent of the number of coins which the CPRI report are in private hands a decade later.

If the CPRI figures are an accurate indicator of the size of the private artefact holdings in the US, it is clear that in this case at least, the current pool of artefacts which has been on the market is to a very high degree composed of material which has indeed been freshly dug out of the archaeological record in foreign countries and illegally exported. They are by any definition illicit artefacts.

Vignette: a meeting of the Society of Dilettantes, after Sir Joshua Reynolds

Prison time, felony charges rare for relic looters in USA

The strength of the market for antiquities and the consistent failures of the US legal system to deal with those committing offences against the 1979 Archaeological Resources Protection Act, together with a lack of manpower and other priorities for investigators, means that the US is currently “witnessing the wholesale stripping and selling off for scrap our collective American heritage“. Despite a push in recent decades to get tougher on artifact looters, there are no significant signs that prosecutions or punishments are having any major effect on looting, especially those that steal for commercial purposes, writes Mike Stark Associated Press writer (“Prison time, felony charges rare for relic looters“). It would seem the answer lies in controlling the market more closely. More here.

US Heritage Protection Legislation "inadequate" to Curb Antiquities Market

The pro-collecting lobby urges that the instead of current “restrictive ” laws, the archaeological heritage of all regions should become a free-for all to be “harvested” for collectable antiquities, perhaps with some form of voluntary reporting scheme like Britain’s Portable Antiquities Scheme in place to salvage some of the information which would otherwise be lost. In contrast to this we have views which urge that more should be done to protect archaeological sites from any kind of avoidable damage. On the back of the recent illicit antiquity raids in Utah, Gray Warriner an independent filmmaker has written an interesting essay in the Salt Lake Tribune. His thesis is that in the United States “Current laws are inadequate to protect antiquities” (Salt Lake Tribune 26th June 2009). He urges for a change in legislation to curb the antiquities market which drives the destruction of the archaeological record in the search for collectable atefacts. He likens this to the protection of threatened natural resources such as songbirds. More here.

Export 101 for Antiquities

Over on the Yahoo AncientArtifacts forum there is a telling request for information. A small-time dealer in antiquities from North Carolina asks the list:

Back to basics if someone can help me. In regard to antiquities, which countries: Allow the free and unregulated trade in and export of antiquities? Restrict any trade in or export of antiquities? Don’t seem to care so they don’t address the issue with legislation? Allow regulated trade in and export of antiquities if proper paperwork is obtained? I know most countries ban export of antiquities and do these laws differentiate between pieces of major archaeological/cultural importance and minor pieces. For simplicity, I include coins as antiquities unless there are separate laws governing coins.

This would be sixty-four million dollar question I would have thought for anyone engaged in antiquity collecting, let alone commerce. So, we might ask why there seems to be no published handlist of these laws compiled by the collecting advocacy organizations as an aid to responsible trade and collection of portable antiquities, or until now a perceived need for one.

One such organization is the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild founded in 2004, whose International Affairs Committee : “2-5-1. […] appointed by and responsible to the Executive Director, compiles and archives information about foreign laws and import/export procedures in source countries“. So where is this archive and why is it is not made available to antiquity collectors as a resource?

Obviously, compiling such a resource would be relatively easy for responsible portable antiquity dealers who obtain items exported legally from the source and market countries, since they must know the laws of these individual countries to the letter to be able to abide by them. I cannot imagine that it would be otherwise.

Until then, there are however a number of resources to which the dealer and collector can refer for some of these countries, covering legislation concerning cultural property in general, not specifically that connected with export. There is for example the useful online resource on ‘International Cultural Property Ownership & Export Legislation‘ of the International Foundation for Art Research (registration needed). UNESCO has begun to produce a ‘Cultural Heritage Laws Database’.