November 4th, 2010 – An anti-collector advocacy group has awarded two former and two current members of U.S. law enforcement honorary awards for their efforts to stamp out the illicit trade in antiquities.
The group, Saving Antiquities for Everyone or SAFE, has argued that unprovenanced artifacts, including those as common as ancient coins, should be considered “stolen” from countries such as China, Cyprus, Greece and Italy.
Approximately one hundred people attended the awards ceremony in New York City that also served as a fundraiser for SAFE. The “Washington Square News” has quoted one of the honorees, Senior Special Agent of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement James McAndrew, as stating, “Stolen and looted art trade sums up to almost $6 billion,” and that “In many cases, the money is used to finance terrorism activities.”
Both claims, however, have been hotly disputed by other experts in the field, who view them as gross exaggerations. For instance, Kate Fitz Gibbon, a former member of the U.S. Cultural Property Advisory Committee, has stated in her book “Who Owns the Past?”, “Press and public statements about the antiquities market often cite estimates of a billion or more dollars per year for the illicit trade in ‘cultural property’… Like many popular myths, the billion-dollar figure has been repeated so often that its origin is hard to trace…. Collected data on stolen art indicates that the value of antiquities is a tiny fraction of the ‘cultural property’ total.”
There are similar suspicions that claims about supposed links between antiquities trading and terrorism are also grossly overblown. For example, archaeologists associated with SAFE have claimed that Wikileaks recent release of U.S. intelligence documents from the Iraq war support that claim, but the search term “antiquities” comes up with only 16 hits in a universe of 391,000 documents. And many of these few documents have nothing at all to do with antiquities smuggling.
The Washington Square News report suggests that such claims are being used to justify additional funding for U.S. enforcement of other countries’ antiquities laws. After discussing recent transfers of agents away from these efforts, the report concludes, “It is up to the public to push the government to invest more and play a more active role in saving these valuable antiquities.”
Peter K. Tompa
If you want to search for “antiquities” at Wikileaks, please click here.
For the Washington Square News Report, click here.