Art Fraud: Raiders of the Lost Past

DOIhttps://doi.org/10.1108/eb025661
Date01 February 1995
Publication Date01 February 1995
Pages7-9
AuthorColin Renfrew
SubjectAccounting & finance
Journal
of
Financial Crime
Vol.
3 No. 1 Key
Comment
KEY COMMENT
Art Fraud: Raiders
of the
Lost Past
Colin Renfrew
The clandestine excavation
of
antiquities
for
profit
is
not a new
enterprise: papyrus texts show
it to
have been
a
pressing problem
in
Ancient Egypt.
But
the
scale
of the
traffic
in
looted antiquities
is
now said
to be
second only
to
that
of
drug smug-
gling
in
terms
of
annual turnover,
and
there
is
evidence that
the
traffic
in
antiquities
and the traf-
fic
in drugs
now
often
go
hand
in
hand
especially when
the
antiquities
in
question derive
from drug-producing countries
in
South-East Asia
and
in
South America. Moreover, antiquities
are at
present relatively easy
to
market
they
are
highly
fungible assets,
and
hence very suitable
as a
medium
for
money laundering.
It
is
also disquieting that London
is now
widely
seen
as the
focal nexus
for the
trade
in
illicit antiq-
uities.
That this should
be so is
perhaps
not
surprising, since
the
London
art
market
has
always
been
one of the
most notable
in the
world
(and
traditionally among
the
more highly reputed).
In
recent years,
a
number
of
dealers
and
auction
houses seem
to
have followed
a 'no
questions
asked' policy. Antiquities
are
publicly offered
for
sale,
often without
any
plausible provenance
and
certainly without
any
guarantee that they
are not
the product
of
recent looting. Many
of the
more
reputable dealers
and
auction houses subscribed
some years
ago to a
Code
of
Practice, which
was
supposed
to
offer some discouragement
to the
sale
of illicit materials.
But
there
is
little sign
of its
being applied,
and few
dealers
arc
seen
to
make
reference
to it.
The disastrous loss
to our
common heritage
our collective understanding
of
the human past
is
the
principal outcome
of
this unsatisfactory sit-
uation,
and
this point will
be
considered below.
But first
it is
worth emphasising that
the
scale
and
pace
of
depredation
has now
reached crisis propor-
tions.
In
just
one
week recently three major police
initiatives against shady dealers were announced.
Ironically
it was in the
same week that
the
Depart-
ment
of
National Heritage divulged that they were
not proposing
to go
ahead with
the
Treasure Bill,
an item
of
legislation which passed
in the
House
of Lords last year
but
fell
in the
Commons
due to
lack
of
Government support. There
is
consensus
among archaeologists
and
cultural advisors that
England's archaic 'Treasure Trove'
law is
totally
unsuitable
for the
protection
of the
national herit-
age,
and
that adequate legislation
on
portable
antiquities
is
desperately needed.
But the
Depart-
ment
of
National Heritage, conforming
to its
'do-nothing' reputation seems content
to
take
no
initiative.
On
11th
March, under
the
very apposite head-
line 'Treasure hunters loot history
of the
world',
Stephen Grey
in the
Daily Express reported
the
ransacking
of
ancient sites
in
Iraq,
and the
pillaging
of Iraq's museums after
the
Gulf War.
'In January Scotland Yard's
art and
antiques
squad mounted
one of its
biggest raids ever
on
the cargo terminal
at
Heathrow. They found
necklaces, pottery
and
carved tablets worth
thousands from
the
ancient Sumerian city
of
Umma
. . . Det.
Chief Insp. Charles Hill, head
of Scotland Yard's
art and
antiques squad, said
most
of the
looted
art was
circulating freely.
Much
is on
open sale
in
smart Mayfair galleries.'
At
a
recent seminar
in
Baghdad
the
scale
of
looting
was
disclosed. Unfortunately many items
from
the
Iraq National Museum
in
Baghdad,
which were dispersed
for
safety
at the
outset
of the
war, have been plundered
in
their supposed
ref-
uges
in
provincial museums. Similarly, antiquities
from
the
Afghan National Museum
in
Kabul
arc
now openly being offered
for
sale
in
Delhi, Lon-
don
and
New York.
On
12th
March,
in the
Sunday Times,
Ian
Burrell
and Adrian Levy reported
an
international police
operation resulting
in the
arrest,
in
England,
of
five art dealers
and a
police officer,
for
trafficking
in stolen antiquities looted from Egyptian Govern-
Page
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