Australian Outlook

In this section

Antiquities: A Crooked Market

13 Jan 2023
By Dr Christos Tsirogiannis
Alba Iulia National Museum of the Union 2011. Source: Corin.B/

Profit and lack of proof for the illicit origin of antiquities were the motives for an international market to flourish for centuries. But, when terrorist groups are now being financed from such trafficking, countries cannot afford to continue looking the other way.

Since Antiquity, looters have been targeting cemeteries to steal precious objects, and in times of war, the victorious armies were often stripping items of cultural significance, directly connected to the history and identity of those defeated. In modern times, these practices remain unchanged, and a market for antiquities has flourished, based on objects which, at the time of the sale, could not be proven as stolen. Since the early 19th century, most of the countries hosting remains of ancient civilizations hurried to create laws for the protection of their cultural heritage, but, in practice, looting remained largely unaffected, while museum and private collections expanded.

In 1970, UNESCO created a convention to contribute to the fight for the protection of antiquities against trafficking. However, legal proof was still required of the illicit origin of antiquities, otherwise they were accepted as traded legally. Since such proof was lacking, the market and its clients were not pushed to change their attitude. Instead, they continued to defend this trade, claiming that in this way they were saving and protecting the objects. The fact is, however, that they would not care about these objects if these objects had no price tag. Moreover, this trade itself still contributes to the erasure of historical information about our shared past through the vandalism and destruction of the archaeological sites from where these objects were actually looted.

In the 1980s and 1990s, academic researchers often pointed to sales and collections in which objects lacked documented, legal, collecting history (“provenance”), but even those experts could not openly claim that these objects were illicit, due to the lack of adequate proof. In the mid-1990s, the Italian authorities, aided by their French, Swiss, German, Greek, and American colleagues, executed a series of raids on high-end antiquities dealers who were considered “reputable.” The confiscation of these dealers’ archives containing tens of thousands of images, often depicting unique antiquities broken and covered with soil, as well a wealth of documents (bank receipts, handwritten notes, lists of objects, written communications with museums, collectors, auction houses, other dealers, middlemen, and looters), offered the missing proofs and revealed the existence of an international trafficking network that, since the end of World War II, traded antiquities originating from nearly all ancient civilizations.

Since the mid-2000s, based on this evidence, hundreds of masterpieces and other antiquities have been claimed and repatriated to various countries of origin from the most famous state and university museums, as well as from the most acclaimed private collections, mainly in the US. However, even today, the antiquities market persists in offering antiquities without the basic provenance requirements and avoiding prior checks, at least with the Italian authorities who hold copies of all the confiscated archives. Consequently, auction house sales still result in the identification of illicit material from that network of traffickers. Antiquities dealers are following the same path, leading to the same consequences, which they still do not consider sufficient to change their mentality and way of trading.

In theory, museums are more careful, but, in practice, they sometimes guard information that only they possess demonstrating that certain antiquities in their collections are “toxic” (i.e., their provenance is full of red flags) or even illicit. Moreover, they still sometimes acquire unprovenanced objects, terming them exceptions to the international and even their own internal ethical guidelines regarding new acquisitions. As for the collectors, they are often frustrated when museums are turning down their donations of objects due to their unprovenanced nature. Those objects, however, are still accepted more easily by the market, where they are not uncommonly identified as illicit before or after their actual sale takes place. Despite the repeated confiscation of illicit archaeological material in auction and dealers’ galleries, none of them are forced to close, and the market continues its activity, largely without the sanctions that any other professional sector would have suffered if it was continually found trading in stolen material.

During the last decade, it has been demonstrated that one source of unprovenanced antiquities is terrorist groups that control antiquities looting in conflict zones. There have been centuries of barbaric destruction of heritage sites, the irreversible loss of historical knowledge as a result of looting, and the financial sustainability offered to looters by the antiquities market. Now, however, those still unconvinced about the true nature of the antiquities trade can consider a new dimension of proof: the loss of lives in war zones, and even sometimes in their own neighbourhood, due to attacks executed by terrorist groups – in some cases financed from antiquities trafficking. Despite statements to the contrary by members of the market, their continuing lack of due diligence regarding the antiquities they are offering creates the possibility, if not the probability, that such “blood antiquities” are reaching the international market. However, even such sales that are fuelling terrorist activities still seem not to be sufficient reason for the market and its clients to shift towards a truly legal market.

One way forward would be to reverse the burden of proof on the provenance of the antiquities traded. Currently everything is traded “legally,” based on the absence of proof for the objects of illicit origin, which is required to be provided by the authorities. Rather, it should be the case that, by law, the members of the market are those that should offer the proof that each antiquity on sale is accompanied by a documented collecting history which proves its undoubted legal origin. After all, it is the members of this market who are profiting from this trade and those who are directly involved in this series of transactions. They are therefore best positioned to provide this level of documentation, far better than the authorities or any academic and other researchers. However, these are solidly established mentalities in countries benefiting financially for centuries from the undisturbed sale of unprovenanced antiquities. It would be surprising if, just because these objects now are continually proven to be stolen, those mentalities would change relatively quickly, even if this is now urgently required by the connection of such material to terrorist atrocities.

But then, what worse phenomenon than terrorism are countries really waiting for to change their relevant laws?

Dr Christos Tsirogiannis is a forensic archaeologist based in Cambridge (UK), where he obtained his PhD on the international trafficking networks on antiquities. He held a post-doc position at the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research (University of Glasgow, 2014-2016) and was a Research Fellow at the Aarhus Institute of Advanced Studies (Aarhus University, 2019-2022). He is now the head of Working Group Illicit Antiquities Trafficking of the UNESCO Chair on Threats to Cultural Heritage and Cultural Heritage-related Activities (Ionian University, 2022-present)

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.