CONSERVATION AND THE ANTIQUITIES TRADE
3 STOLEN ANTIQUITIES
Looting is not the only way in which antiquities come onto the market. The high prices paid for antiquities have created an insatiable demand that cannot always be met by looting and clandestine excavations. When the looted supply cannot meet demand, theft provides relatively easy access to large numbers of antiquities. It is a sad fact that conditions throughout the world provide art and archaeological thieves with relatively easy access to public collections.
War is perhaps the most obvious of these conditions and has taken a heavy toll on archaeological sites, as opportunists are most likely to be found where there is disorder. The hemorrhaging of large numbers of antiquities from wartorn countries such as Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, and Kuwait are only the latest in a long line of similar situations throughout human history. It is sobering to think that 50 years after the end of World War II, the fate of many important archaeological collections still remains unknown. The celebrated collection of antiquities found at Troy in Turkey by Heinrich Schliemann in the 1870s is a case in point. Only recently have the whereabouts of this collection been ascertained.
It is a sad fact that museum security measures in many of the antiquity and art “producing” countries are simply inadequate to deter or stop such activities. In addition, relatively unsophisticated, ignorant local inhabitants, particularly in rural areas, fall easy prey to more sophisticated, unscrupulous individuals from urban areas or art “consuming” countries. This situation is aided by deteriorating living conditions caused by severe periods of drought, earthquakes, or other natural disasters. How can a subsistence farmer, for example, turn down an amount of money that would keep his family in food and clothing for a year, especially when it is in exchange for a seemingly common, insignificant commodity, such as pots or figurines?
While Italy heads the list of countries losing the greatest number of antiquities to looters, other Mediterranean countries, including Turkey, Greece, Egypt, and Lebanon, are not far behind (Platthy 1993). Within the past decade, numerous museums in Africa alone have been robbed of substantial numbers of their archaeological heritage (ICOM 1994). Unfortunately, the situation is no better in Central and South American countries (Pendergast 1991).
Theft, like looting, robs antiquities of their context. The origins of the antiquity must be obscured to prevent discovery of how it was obtained. Unless an antiquity has been carefully documented (and perhaps published) before its theft, it is virtually impossible to reconstruct where it came from, especially if it has been cleaned and altered by conservation treatment.