Trafficking in Antiquities
By Dialogo January 01, 2010
Archaeological artifacts are in high demand by private dealers, collectors and auction houses around the world. Antiquities smuggling is estimated to generate as much as $4 billion a year in the global black market, according to Interpol.
Grave robbers in poor areas of Latin America loot ancient graves for cash, serving as the first link in the multimillion-dollar black market antiquities trade, The Associated Press reported. Such looting robs countries of their treasures and heritage, and destroys valuable research possibilities.
For decades, looting has devastated pre- Columbian sites in Guatemala, Brazil, Costa Rica, Mexico, Ecuador and Bolivia. The looting of Peru’s pre-Columbian artifacts began during the Spanish conquest in the 1500s. For centuries, locals have exploited tombs dating back as far as 3,000 B.C., plundering artifacts of gold, silver, precious stones, copper and even mummies.
Four tons of fossils were stolen in 2008 from Argentina and later seized in the United States, including 200-million-year-old dinosaur eggs and fossilized prehistoric crabs. Looting of archaeological sites is also widespread throughout Africa and the Middle East.
Local looters sell the artifacts to local or regional buyers, who in turn sell to international traffickers. They smuggle the artifacts across borders by bribing authorities and using falsified documents declaring the goods modern Indian-style crafts for legal export, The Associated Press reported.
Artisanal workshops in Peru and Bolivia draw upon cultural knowledge to manufacture reproductions of artifacts using original molds, clay and minerals to make the paint for the items. Archeology.org reported that pieces are then marketed and sold as genuinely pre-Columbian. Internet auction sites have provided a hard-to-regulate forum for the illicit trade.
Once sold on the Western market, objects continue to circulate for years, perhaps centuries, generating multiple transactions.
To counter Peru’s illicit trafficking of antiquities, the International Council of Museums produces the annual Red List of Peruvian Antiquities at Risk. The list is an appeal to museums, auction houses, art dealers and collectors to provide all the necessary guarantees of origin for every purchase of a cultural antiquity coming from Peru. It also helps police and customs officers identify art market objects whose origin is questionable.
U.S. museums and galleries are trying to slow the tide of cultural artifacts entering the country, and have agreed in recent years to repatriate artifacts to their countries of origin.