Friday, June 1, 2007

Tomb raiding: the world’s second oldest profession

The Medici Conspiracy (Public Affairs, 2006) by Peter Watson reads like fiction, but it is not. This book recounts the true story of the Italian art dealer, Giacomo Medici, who facilitated the smuggling of antiquities between places as distant and different as a 2500 year-old tomb in Macedonia, Sotheby’s in London and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

What is truly remarkable about the Medici story is that stealing antiquities is so commonplace. According to S.A.F.E.: Saving Antiquities for Everyone (, it is a business worth between 2 and 6 billion dollars annually. Only a minute percentage of those thefts are either detected or prosecuted.

Especially in places where war and poverty have left heritage sites and objects exposed, it is easy for opportunists to steal objects. In some countries, the racketeers employ poor local residents to do the dirty work. They extract objects from the ground or monuments, smash them and send them piecemeal by ordinary post and delivery services to dealers in other countries who reconstruct them and put them on the market. The big auction houses (Watson incriminates Sotheby’s) have facilitated this process by guaranteeing that the seller’s anonymity is guaranteed. Some of these laundered artifacts end up in museums, and until recently, stand on exhibit with impunity.

One of the most notorious examples is the Euphronios Krater at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Met acquired the masterpiece for $1,000,000 in 1972 and displayed it prominently for over three decades. The Met, however, who had not insured the legitimacy of its acquisition according to the UNESCO Convention of 1970, eventually paid the price of its negligence. In response to a prolonged dispute with the Italian ministry of culture, in 2005, the Met relinquished ownership of the vase to the Italian government and struck a deal, whereby it kept the vase on display at the Met as a “lent” object.

The Met is not the only museum embroiled in controversy over stolen antiquities. One of the most newsworthy cases is the former antiquities curator of the Getty, Marion True. True was fired from the Getty and criminal charges were pressed against her for acquiring stolen objects, including a rare funerary wreath dating to about 400 BC. (, 0,6267248.story). In response to the scandal, the Getty has returned some disputed artifacts to the cultural authorities of Greece.

Moreover, the Getty has instituted a policy on acquisition, a common practice in museums that has recently become more widespread. The Getty’s general guideline comprises three requirements: due diligence, compliance with the legal code of the country of origin, adequate documentation. The role of the guidelines is to protect museums from incurring financial and professional costs in the future. Thus far, the Getty has forfeited over $5,000,000 in returned objects, and their former curator faces criminal charges and a ruined career.

It may seem like a high price to pay, but the stakes of the tomboli game have to be high if the problem is to be mitigated. The advent of quick and cheap global communications and transportation and the increase in the world’s wealth, have contributed to making the theft of artifacts into what Interpol declares is the third largest crime in the world after drug trafficking and arms trafficking. Furthermore, art theft is known to play an important role in funding criminal activities and terrorism.

One of its most costly effects, however, isn’t measurable in monetary. It’s the opportunity loss that arises when humanity’s heritage is concentrated in a few rich places, thereby robbing less fortunate people of the opportunity to know and experience first hand their own heritage.

Books on the topic:

Matthew Bogdanos, Thieves of Baghdad (Bloomsbury, 2005)

Roger Atwood, Stealing History (St. Martin’s Press, 2004)


Peter Watson:


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