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International Trade in Looted Antiquities

www.plundered.past - a Commentary by Karen Olsen Bruhns


I am pleased to be able to turn over my pulpit to archaeologist Karen Olsen Bruhns, an archaeologist at San Francisco State University who occasionally moonlights as a consultant on the illegal antiquities trade for the U.S. Customs.

One of the ongoing battles archaeologists have grappled with over the decades is the antiques market. There's no doubt about it that early archaeologists largely supported the illicit trade of artifacts; our earliest predecessors were often both buyers and sellers of such goods to learn about hidden archaeological sites, and, I'm afraid, to fund the ongoing costs of excavations. Antiques dealers are (or rather can be) legitimate businesses in many countries, and some of our most respected politicians are collectors of ancient artifacts. Unfortunately, the trade in the antiquities market can and does support the looting of archaeological treasures the world over. In this essay, Karen Olsen Bruhns discusses the latest wrinkle on the old problem; antique dealing on the web.


The Internet is a powerful sales tool. All of us who suffered through media bleatings about e-commerce during the holidays season must be aware of that. International business and middle class America are on-line. General feeling—-as reported in the business section of my local newspaper—-is that some 40% of all American households are connected to the Internet; rising to 75% or more of all people making $70,000 a year or more. Small wonder then that the antiquities market has moved on-line in an ever increasing manner. Starting with the arrowhead collectors/dealers, who have been very active on the WWW for some time, moving to auction houses from Sotheby’s to the guys who auction off more modest estates, and then the dealers themselves, everyone has gotten or is getting onto the Internet band wagon.

In January 2000 Alex Barker addressed some of the aspects of this vast expansion of the illicit antiquities market, specifically the immense Amazon.com and eBay auctions as they get into the business of flogging antiquities world-wide. This is a disastrous situation, although one that was to be expected, given the ambivalent attitude towards antiquities dealing exhibited by the U.S. legal system. Yes, e-trading is going to, if it has not already, increase the rate of site destruction world-wide. And, as Dr. Barker remarked, it is extending the market to really low economic levels---potsherds literally being scraped by the bagfull off of sites around the world to make earrings, fancy little box lids and similar pieces of decorative kitsch.

The WWW is a wonderful opportunity for antiquities sales. Paper costs have risen sharply and the cost of publication of catalogues has become prohibitive. On the Web multiple color photographs of objects can be disseminated around the world cheaply. New stock can be popped in instantly and dubious items removed or transferred to a less prestigious venue as the demands of commerce or escaping prosecution indicate. No more mailing costs and delays. The WWW really is a tremendous advantage to highly visual and semi-legitimate businesses. After all, if you can sell babies and kidneys on eBay, why not artifacts of dubious provenience or authenticity?

I am going to restrict my specific comments to pre-Columbian antiquities as this is my area of expertise. I understand from colleagues in Egyptology, East Asian Studies, and even paleontology, which has recently awakened to the tremendous increase in the value of fossils and the hemorrhaging of fossils from this and other countries, that the situation is the same everywhere. The past is being bulldozed out of the ground and being sold on-line.
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