There has been a great deal of media attention regarding the looting of antiquities and other cultural property. The sacking of Iraq’s National Museum and the heritage of the country soon after the fall of Baghdad in 2003 drew international headlines. The issue of looting came to the fore again in 2005 with the Italian Government’s indictment of Marion True, then chief Curator of Antiquities at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, for trafficking in looted Greek and Roman artifacts. True was put on trial for what was cultural theft.
However, Italy’s investigations did not start, or stop, with Marion True and the Getty. In the mid 1990s, Italian police followed antiquities dealer Giacomo Medici to a warehouse in Switzerland, where they uncovered a treasure trove of documents implicating dozens of museums, collectors, dealers, looters, and smugglers from around the globe, underscoring the international nature of the illicit antiquities trade.
Many looted objects were traced back to museums, particularly in the United States. The most prominent of these was the Euphronios krater, a large, 2,500-year-old terra cotta vessel, painted by one of the most renowned Greek artists of the age (Euphronios). The krater had been in the collection of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art since the early 1970s. Unfortunately, it had been looted from Southern Italy some years earlier and, as a result, was returned to Italy in early 2008.
Despite the media coverage, these and other examples of looting are generally viewed as nothing more than a series of unrelated headline-grabbing events. The big picture is seldom examined; such as the very existence of an international, multi-billion dollar black market trade in looted and stolen antiquities. In fact, only two illegal markets in the world generate more money than looted antiquities: drug smuggling and gun running.
Nations have been pillaging other nations’ most prized possessions for time immemorial, but the practice was not condemned by the ‘international community’ until well into the 19th century. The 1899 and 1907 Hague Conventions were the first international agreements to call for the protection of cultural property. Two world wars later, with Europe, its monuments, and museums in ruins, a new, stronger Hague Convention was promulgated in 1954.
The 1954 Convention declared antiquities and other works of cultural property to be the collective heritage of mankind as a whole and thus inviolate. This sat well with the nations who drafted the agreement as they were primarily market nations, nations who imported cultural property, as opposed to source nations’ who had their cultural property removed. The notion that cultural property belonged to all gave support to market nations’ contention that they had just as much right to a given artifact as its country of origin.
Not surprisingly, source nations were displeased with the 1954 Convention and, as they gained more power in the new hub of international relations, the United Nations, they pushed for a new agreement. These efforts lead to the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Transport, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property of 1970.
Nearly 40 years later, the UNESCO Convention remains the most important international agreement regarding cultural property. Unfortunately, this is not a positive outcome, as attempts at new agreements are consistently shot down by source nations, who consider them too restrictive.
The greatest achievement of the 1970 Convention was its establishment of the year 1970 as the most significant date in settling many disputes involving cultural property. Simply because the agreement was written in 1970, such disputes are now divided into two categories: pre-1970 and post-1970. Broadly stated, if an object was looted before 1970, its country of origin is far less likely to regain it than if the object had been looted after 1970.
Much to Italy’s delight and the Metropolitan Museum’s dismay, the Euphronios krater was looted after 1970. It is now standard policy for nearly all American museums to return any objects whose pre-1970 provenance (origins and ownership history) cannot be sufficiently verified. Items acquired before 1970, however, are usually retained by museums, unless a source country can definitively prove the item was looted. Museums do not have to demonstrate that they acquired an item legally, so unless the source country happens to know exactly where the object came from and when (i.e. pre-1970), the item will stay put, even if it most likely was looted.
Evidence of this practice is easy to spot in any museum, not only those with antiquities collections. Just go to your local museum and look for any of the following words describing an object: believed to be, style, likely, or a vague geographic region. If an object’s label carries any of these words, there’s a high probably that it is loot.
When an object is acquired legitimately, the buyer will know where it comes from, either because a reliable seller provided this information or because the buyer was involved in the object’s discovery. If, however, the buyer does not know the object’s origin, it is because the seller did not know either, or the buyer simply did not ask. In the former case, the seller is likely a middleman who obtained the object from a looter, in the latter, the buyer knows the object was looted but wants to be able to claim ignorance.
Although the buyer may not know the object’s exact origin, an appraiser, historian, or other scholar can usually provide a rough idea based on the its size, shape, style, function, etc. As a result, if the scholar thinks a certain item probably came from Babylon, its label will read: believed to be Babylonian, Babylonian-style, likely Babylonian, or central Mesopotamian.
There are hundreds of museums in the U.S., thousands around the world. For every object displayed with this type of label, there are a dozen more in storage. And while the discovery of a looted item in a museum may get some attention, museums buy only a fraction of the looted antiquities sold each year. The vast majority go to private collectors, hidden from prying eyes.
Ironically, it is only when collectors loan or donate their works to museums that the looted items are discovered. Despite, or perhaps because of, the negative media attention they receive, museums have unintentionally become watchdogs against the illicit antiquities trade.