Sunday, March 2, 2008

What to do about antiquities trafficking? The Community Museum

With the recent police raids on four art museums in California, the trafficking of antiquities has made yet another splash in the news. It’s interesting to note that many of the authorities depicted in this photo from the LA Times are wearing IRS uniforms. Why the IRS? What is the "real" crime at hand? And who are the perpetrators?

The IRS is concerned, because the donation of an object to an art museum constitutes a tax deduction on the US income tax return. As long as the object is valued under $5000 (USD) -- and not surprisingly, most of them are -- the gift does not have to be approved by the IRS. It’s a simple question of a deal between the museum and the donor, much like a receipt for the old fridge dropped off at the Salvation Army. The raided museums are alleged to have granted hundreds of thousands of tax write-offs.

Although there are other legal routes to prosecution, the “real” crime - the one that gets easy traction within the US legal system -- is tax evasion. Tax evasion, which is only subject to US federal and state law, is a more straightforward charge to prosecute than alternatives, such as property theft, violation of international patrimony laws and illegal interstate commerce. It must be stated, however, that as more cases of antiquities theft cases come to trial in the US, a body of law is forming which makes the legal footing firmer, for example The McClain/Schultz Doctrine.

Who are the perpetrators? As explained in books such as The Medici Conspiracy and Stealing History, antiquities trafficking involves a vast network of people from museums, curators, collectors, dealers and auction houses in "market" countries and middle men and looters in "source" countries. 90% of the press and 90% of the resources mobilized by concerned organizations such as S.A.F.E. have been directed at the white collar criminals who are operating in the "market" countries. What about the other part? What about the residents of the "source" country who do the digging, chopping and slashing? What can be done to stop them?

In a nutshell, people dig up and traffick antiquities, because it's lucrative, there are few or no other options for making money and nobody is stopping them. Their activity is morally and often legally wrong but it is perfectly reasonable given the dysfunctional economic, social and political system in which the "looters" exist. The antiquities that end up on the auction tables, display shelves and walls of some of the wealthiest institutions and homes in the West, come from places where people live with endemic poverty, illiteracy, disease and political strife.

The irony and tragedy of the situation is that although vast quantities of money circulates, a relatively small amount goes to the "looter" and none trickles down to the "source" community. Even the discovery and excavation of Sipan, one of the riches finds in MesoAmerica, didn't bring money, jobs, roads or electricity to most of the villagers. They didn't even get the museum. Its collection ended up in a national museum too far away for them to ever see it again. It's not surprising that the chief archeologist who lived and worked with the people of Sipan, Walter Alvero, is afraid to return to this village.

As in the case of most every gold rush in history, a few people strike gold, the treasure disappears and most people are left with little more than a hole in the back yard. At best, the holes are unsightly and at worse, they cause soil erosion, trip and trap animals and people, harbor land mines and guerrillas, and serve as a constant reminder of exploitation and injustice. Holes left by art traffickers can blow up figuratively and literally in people's faces.

Of course, hastily digging up sites to extract the objects also deprives the world of valuable information about the history of humanity. Although it is important to take measures to keep safe archeological sites, it is not sufficient to secure the site strictly for its potential knowledge content. Since knowledge is the equivalent to cash for the archeologist, that would be like letting the art dealer take the objects to sell and keep all the cash. If there is a funded plan to extract treasures, there should also be a funded plan to support the development of the people who live on or around this site.To do otherwise is the moral equivalent of cutting down the forest and leaving with all the wood. The failure to support community development is a lost opportunity at best and a contributing factor to looting and antiquities theft.

The 'community museum" may play an important role in stemming antiquities trafficking by providing "source" country residents with a viable alternative. By "community museum" I mean a public space dedicated to the protection, preservation and promotion of cultural heritage. It serves the local people first: as an engine for economic development, an institution for literacy and life-long learning, a public arena for developing skills in self-determination and governance and place for the formation and transmission of the community's identity. Its interest, however, is not necessarily confined to the local residents. On the contrary, its unique window into the culture it represents, may have an appeal that extends beyond regional, national and even international boundaries.

In addition to thwarting antiquities theft by stemming looting at the source, a "community museum" can have a broader curative effect on the people, as you can see from the outcomes of this Heritance project in the black South African township of Mpophomeni.

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