Tomb Raiders, Smugglers, and the Looting of the Ancient World
By Roger Atwood
St. Martin's. 337 pp. $25.95
Recently I visited a private collection housed in a villa in Miraflores, a quiet residential district of Lima, Peru. The tour was guided by Enrico Poli, the owner of the villa, which is packed with Cusco paintings, colonial silver and old furniture. But the museum's true gem is its pre-Columbian collection, which contains some golden objects from the Moche royal tombs in Sipán, discovered in 1987. (The Moche culture dominated the northern coast of Peru from the first to the sixth centuries A.D.; Moche arts, crafts and technology were extremely advanced for the ancient world.)
The eccentric collector was free with graphic explanations of erotic Moche figurines, causing his audience of Peruvian and Ecuadorian matrons to blush, but he avoided any mention of the provenance of his unique possessions. Such caution was understandable. The majority of Peruvian archaeological artifacts in the private museums are purchased from grave looters -- so-called huaqueros, who have destroyed practically every archaeological site in Peru over the last decades.
Roger Atwood's new book, Stealing History, tells the sad tale of the royal tombs at Sipán in great detail. In the best-case scenario, treasures discovered by gravediggers became prey to unscrupulous Peruvian collectors; in the worst, they were smuggled out of the country, to be sold at European and American antiquity markets. Atwood's account of the joint quest of the well-known Peruvian archaeologist Walter Alva and a group of FBI agents to recover the looted treasures reads like a perfect detective story, replete with Mafia connections, diplomat-smugglers and police chases.
By the end of the 1990s, the majority of Sipán objects smuggled out of the country had been returned to Peru, but the end of the story is more sad than happy. The author tries both to reconstruct the looting of one particular site and to put the tragedy of Sipán in a broader context of the history of crimes against the past, from the "purchase" of the Parthenon Marbles by Lord Elgin to the explosion of illegal archaeological excavations in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein.
But if grave robbers have always existed, some tendencies in archaeological looting are more recent. In 1923, the 22-year-old André Malraux (surprisingly not mentioned by Atwood) was caught using a handsaw, chisel and crowbar to take seven sculptures from the temple of Banteay Srei in Angkor in Cambodia. In 1951, in his book Voices of Silence, the French writer introduced his conception of an imaginary multicultural museum embracing everything from African masks and Mayan statues to the paintings of Raphael or Picasso. Malraux's dream was realized: What he called "the Western classical cataract" has been removed. However, the end of Eurocentrism has led not only to the revision of the concept of cultural history but also to the merciless destruction of the legacy of non-European cultures. The vision of all-inclusive art propagated by Malraux changed the face of museums. "Like French Impressionist paintings and a Calder on the lawn," Atwood notes with bitter irony, "Mayan stonework became one of those things that good art museums in America just had to have, and looters in the jungles of southern Mexico and Guatemala worked overtime to meet the demand."
The real villains of Stealing History are not gravediggers -- who often have no other means of survival -- but dealers, collectors and museum officials. As Atwood makes clear, the consensus among archaeologists contradicts the traditional argument that priceless objects can be better preserved in private collections and museum halls than in poor countries unable to take care of their patrimony. For archaeologists, artifacts unearthed by gravediggers become "mute," deprived of their historical value. Atwood exposes quite a few skeletons in the cupboards of respected American institutions, from the Metropolitan Museum in New York to the Museum of New Mexico in Santa Fe (which has some objects allegedly smuggled from Sipán.)
Yet Atwood not only describes the disease, he tries to find a cure. He proposes a detailed program of international and domestic legislation to stop gravediggers, smugglers and their rich patrons. Atwood believes in the necessity of a worldwide moratorium on trade in undocumented antiques, legislation requiring museums to disclose the provenance of their acquisitions, and controls on the market in antiquities. The author understands the complexity of such a task; the difficulty of stopping archaeological looting in poor countries is greatly compounded by the need to convince collectors not to buy looted artifacts. For Atwood, such collectors are "mindless consumers of heritage, depriving everyone alive and everyone who ever will live of part of the collective memory that makes us human."
We can hope that a program to prevent the transformation of South American archaeological sites into a moonscape will be adopted one day. In the meantime, smuggled artifacts fill New York galleries, are offered on eBay (of course, many of these are fakes) and may be seen in collections as diverse as the Poli Museum in faraway Lima and some respected museums in the United States.
Konstantin Akinsha is an art historian and journalist. Among his books are "The AAM Guide for Provenance Research," with Nancy Yeide and Amy Walsh, and "Beautiful Loot: Soviet Plunder of European Art Treasures," with Gregorii Kozlov and Sylvia Hochfield. In 1991 he received the George Polk Memorial Award for reporting on culture.