Egypt’s History Is Being Lost to Criminals

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Egypt’s History Is Being Lost to Criminals

By: Tess Davis and Blythe Bowman

Posted: 04/30/2014 2:41 pm EDT Updated: 06/30/2014 5:59 am EDT


Picture of ruins

A 12th century proverb warns, “Man fears time, but time fears the pyramids.” That may have been true before the Arab Spring, but today, not even the pyramids are sacred. Egypt’s rich archaeological heritage is falling victim to looters, thieves, and smugglers and it is not alone. The illicit trade in antiquities — “cultural racketeering” or “trafficking culture” — spans the globe.

Egypt’s government is making headlines with its pleas for assistance in combatting this plunder, branding it the work of potentially dangerous and organized syndicates. The United States is a primary destination for the so called “blood” antiquities now flooding from there, Libya, Syria, and Tunisia. What does this mean in practical¬†Research (SCCJR). Pillaging ruins may seem a romantic pursuit — see Indiana Jones and Tomb Raider — but it is first and foremost a crime.

In one of the art world’s great contradictions, while most countries have a thriving legal market for artifacts, few have any legal source. And it is more crucial to remember antiquities trafficking is not a victimless or even white collar crime. While auction houses, galleries, and museums boast a culture of respectability and sophistication, when digging beyond this veneer, we often find they are not far removed from brutality and violence. One just need read the headlines to see how many top collectors are tangibly connected by their beautiful objects to the Holocaust, the Cambodian Killing Fields, and the Egyptian bloodshed.

Unfortunately many questions still surround the illicit antiquities trade’s mechanics and scale. Official data are scarce as cultural property thefts often go unreported, and national crime statistics are usually recorded according to theft circumstances, not type of object stolen. Moreover, the antiquities market is largely fed by the clandestine looting of archaeological sites, both known and yet undiscovered. This means that, when estimating the size and nature of the illicit trade, the only true assessment is: we don’t know.

If we wait to answer such questions before taking action, however, there will not be a past left to protect. Research paints a grim picture of the scope and frequency of looting around the world. A 2008 survey asked archaeologists to share their personal experiences. Of the nearly 2,500 participants, working in over 100 countries, 79 percent responded they had had personal experiences with looting while in the field. What’s more, a quarter reported encountering on-site looting in progress, and nearly half that those experiences were not isolated. The data clearly indicate that looting — which again feeds antiquities trafficking — is globally pervasive, commonplace, and iterative.

Yet all this knowledge has not prompted change. The “source” countries home to sought after antiquities — the Egypts, Cambodias, and Perus — lack the means to stop the trade. The “demand” countries like the U.S. lack the will. The great work being done by Homeland Security Investigations, which Egypt just announced will return eight recovered artifacts to Cairo next month, is sadly the exception not the rule.

There is clearly more that needs to be done. This month at the Egyptian Embassy in Washington, during a roundtable organized by the nonprofit Antiquities Coalition, the Minister of Antiquities Mohamed Ibrahim urged academia, governments, and the media to give this issue its due. He is right: we need more — and better — research,¬†policy, and coverage, that recognizes antiquities trafficking is not just a matter of preservation, but one of economics and even security.

In the meantime, it seems more tax dollars go to funding this transnational crime than fighting it. For example, the National Gallery of Australia spent $5 million on a single looted Indian artifact, purchased from the infamous smuggler Subhash Kapoor in 2008. If the museum had donated that money to the Antiquities Coalition for advocacy, SCCJR for research, or Egypt’s government for site protection — how much good could have been accomplished?

So what is the solution? We could elaborate on law and policy, but the best answer is the simplest. To borrow a phrase from WildAid’s landmark anti-ivory campaign, “when the buying stops,” the looting will too. Those who purchase antiquities must ensure these objects are not products of theft, civil unrest, or outright war. If one can afford a masterpiece, one can afford this due diligence. And for the rest of us? We must at least demand such responsibility from our publically funded institutions like museums.

If we don’t, Egypt’s great past may go from one of the world’s wonders, to one of its great cultural tragedies.

Tess Davis is an attorney and affiliate researcher in the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research at the University of Glasgow. She previously served as the executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Cultural Heritage Preservation and is working with Cambodia to combat the illicit trade in the kingdom’s antiquities.

Blythe A. Bowman is an assistant professor of Criminal Justice in the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government & Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University. She has researched and written extensively on archaeological site looting and the illicit antiquities trade.

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