Illicit Antiquities

Why should we care that looters are flooding the antiquities market?

• When properly excavated antiquities offer a window on history and provide primary sources for scholars to interpret.
• Antiquities that are illegally dug up are divorced from the past and information about the context in which they came from is all but lost.
• Archaeological sites can truly only be excavated once, so properly documenting every piece of the puzzle is vital to fully understand the site.

Thus antiquities properly recovered and documented from a legitimate archaeological excavation are important for three reasons:

1. It has provenance.
2. It has a context.
3. It is not a forgery.

Once a site is looted, details of provenance and context are destroyed which can never be reconstructed. So how can we help avoid such catastrophes?

International organisations such as ICOM (International Council of Museums), UNESCO, UNIDROIT and INTERPOL run training programmes for heritage professionals, customs staff and police officers. They also promote ethical standards and raise awareness about threats posed by looting. They provide educational programmes which encourage local communities to preserve their archaeological heritage in order to not only save their cultural past but attract tourists and discourage looting.

Agreements between governments and the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property (which Canada didn’t sign until 1978) have proved a powerful weapon in the war against looting. Nearly 100 countries have now signed this convention.

Ultimately, the archaeological looting will stop only when collectors, museums and dealers refuse to buy looted antiquities. Perhaps in the years to come collecting illicit antiquities will become as socially unacceptable as a stealing candy from a baby. Yet for the mean time this billion dollar industry doesn’t show any signs of slowing down.

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