Reputable auction houses try to get all (arti)facts before selling antiquities
Tuesday, February 1, 2011; 8:10 PM
The first Indiana Jones movie, "Raiders of the Lost Ark," offers many a scene to make archaeologists wince, but none more so than a quiet moment early on when the intrepid Professor Jones sells plundered artifacts to Marcus Brody, director of the fictional National Museum in Washington.
"The museum will buy them as usual," Brody says with a wink. "No questions asked."
These days, archaeologists work hard to present themselves as protectors, not plunderers. After unconfirmed reports of widespread looting of artifacts from tombs and storage facilities in Egypt during the uprising there, the archaeology community is on high alert, warning Interpol, border agents, and art dealers and merchants to look out for Egyptian treasures.
Despite such efforts, experts say that stolen loot will inevitably surface on eBay, at auction houses and, yes, even in reputable museums. The global system of tracking antiquities is simply too porous, the demand for ancient baubles too high.
"The commercial antiquities market worldwide is big, and open, and even though it's received a lot of criticism, it continues to be very active," said Ricardo Elia, a Boston University archaeologist who studies the long, sordid history of antiquities looting.
How active? It's impossible to say, especially in the gray and black markets that exist for such goods. But in just one legitimate auction in December, Christie's of New York sold 263 ancient statues and pieces of jewelry for $34 million. A 3,000-year-old bronze Egyptian standard went for $890,500, and a 4,400-year-old statue from the little-known Cycladic civilization of the Aegean Sea pulled in a whopping $16,882,500.
Christie's sells only objects that it can confirm as legitimately acquired, said Max Bernheimer, international head of antiquities for the auction house. As for Egyptian treasures, Christie's - and other reputable auctioneers - sells only items that are documented to have been removed from the country before 1983. That's when Egypt enacted laws to protect its deep cultural heritage. For example, the bronze standard was published in a catalogue in the early 1980s, Bernheimer said, cementing it as a legitimate acquisition.
"Nobody wants to spend X amount of money and then find out they can't keep what they bought," he said. "The legal market today is driven by the 'P' word."
Ah, the P word: provenance. It means tracing the history of an object, determining where it came from and when. But, as one might expect with objects thousands of years old, the chain of custody is often kinked.
Forged documents are not uncommon, said Elizabeth Bartman, president of the Archaeological Institute of America. "There's an awful lot of stuff that comes on the market that's said to be from old European collections that somehow nobody ever knew about," she said. "I mean, how many East German collections were behind the Iron Curtain that we didn't know about? Come on. It's not very convincing."
Julien Anfruns, the general director of the International Council of Museums, said his organization's network of 30,000 museums worldwide places a high priority on preventing the trafficking of illicit artifacts. "You travel in time [via documents], but unfortunately, there is a limit" to what can be learned about an object, he said. "At some point, you have to make a judgment."
Anfruns allowed that museums have, even in the not-so-distant past, made some very poor judgments.
Most recently, in 2006, New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art returned Greek artifacts to Italy after the museum's director said it was "highly probable" that the objects had been looted from Italian soil.
Of course, at some point, someone nabbed those very vases from Greece and took them to Italy. And on and on into the past the looting goes, leading to deep questions among experts about what the statute of limitations on looted art should be.
Ten years? A hundred? A thousand?
"One can imagine one bunch of cavemen stealing good stuff from another bunch," said Richard Evans, a professor of history at the University of Cambridge who specializes in state-sponsored looting, of which there is, again, an even longer and more sordid history.
The Romans paraded their spoils through the streets. In contrast, Lord Elgin, the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire at the turn of the 19th century, simply wanted some nice things for his estate. So he pried from the Parthenon in Athens a set of detailed friezes now considered the most contentious artifacts on Earth. The Elgin Marbles ended up in the British Museum, where they stay despite ongoing pleas from modern Greeks to return them.
Which brings us to Zahi Hawass, Egypt's chief protector of its antiquities, who on Monday was elevated by President Hosni Mubarak to minister of archaeology. Hawass has waged a decades-long battle to repatriate Egyptian artifacts, arguing that they are safe in their homeland. On hearing the view of a few archaeologists that the artifacts would be safer in the West, Hawass vociferously responded that any looting that has occurred in Egypt has been minimal.
Whether that's true remains unknown. The many archaeologists who have been circulating dire reports from tombs and dig sites south of Cairo have their doubts.
Those objects - which unlike museum pieces have little documentation - are the most coveted among unscrupulous dealers, Elia said. If any such objects have been taken, they could easily surface in Belgium or Switzerland, Bartman said, two countries that have not signed onto international treaties banning the trafficking of looted artifacts.
"There are opportunistic people who know the channels and know how to get it out," she said.
Whatever the case, archaeologists expect at least some artifacts to appear on the market very soon. After all, it didn't take long after the sacking of Baghdad's main museum in 2003 before ancient cuneiform tablets appeared on eBay. The Archeological Institute of America alerted the online trader, which removed the items from bidding.
It's enough to leave good old Indy chuckling in his grave.