Reputable auction houses try to get all (arti)facts before selling antiquities

On guard: Special forces officers patrol the Egyptian Museum in Cairo two days after would-be looters broke in and damaged about 75 objects.
On guard: Special forces officers patrol the Egyptian Museum in Cairo two days after would-be looters broke in and damaged about 75 objects. (Tara Todras-whitehill)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 2, 2011

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."

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