Challenging a 50-Year-Old Factoid About the Illegal Antiquities Trade



Simply since you learn one thing on the web or hear it repeated for nearly 50 years doesn’t make it a truth. Within the newest difficulty of Antiquity, members of the analysis consortium Trafficking Culture Donna Yates and Neil Brodie current an necessary deconstruction of a factoid lengthy used to explain the unlawful market in antiquities: that the unlawful commerce in antiquities is third in quantity solely to different felony networks involving narcotics and arms.

Although Yates and Brodie agree that the unlawful commerce in antiquities is a matter of significant concern, they argue that the reiteration of and reliance on this unsubstantiated declare solely serve to undermine credibility and try to quantify the hurt of unlawful buying and selling within the unsuitable phrases. 

“The concept the severity of crime needs to be measured in comparative phrases by means of financial worth quite than by means of harms to society is upsetting,” the researchers write of their conclusion. “Antiquities and different cultural objects are elementary elements of our heritage and identification. We don’t must rank their illicit commerce financially to render the social harms extra damaging.”

The assertion, they proceed, evinces a “severe flaw in public understanding and thus in our public presentation of the harms associated to looting and trafficking.”

Via some spectacular detective work, the authors hint the origin of this factoid to a 1974 article within the Journal of Field Archaeology through which a United States Division of Treasury bureaucrat is quoted as stating that “the worldwide commerce in artwork is second solely to narcotics.” There is no such thing as a supporting proof for his declare on this announcement, however by the early Eighties, the assertion had turn into a longtime “truth,” reiterated with out corroboration in academic publications and within the popular press. Citations in scholarly literature by cultural property authorized luminaries like Lisa J. Borodkin, Patrick Boylan, L.M. Kaye, James A. R. Nafziger, and Norman Palmer present little or no proof for the dimensions and scope of the antiquities market, however the mental imprimatur ends in a factoid entrenched in discussions surrounding the safety of the previous. 

Illicitly traded statue seized by the US Division of Homeland Safety (picture courtesy US Homeland Safety Investigations)

Nationwide and worldwide companies and governments involved with the safety of cultural heritage have additionally used this factoid in a quest to garner help for his or her trigger. Lumping collectively the unlawful commerce in antiquities with arms and medicines is a chance to capitalize on public sympathy and outrage on the lack of cultural heritage, an opportunity to make governments and folks care. Details and figures are spectacular and positively help in making the case for why we needs to be involved in regards to the unlawful commerce in antiquities and its related evils. However Yates and Brodie argue that using this factoid to craft real-world governmental coverage might result in “ineffective measures being taken towards the illicit antiquities commerce,” all primarily based on uncorroborated info.

“Because the declare has been and continues to be repeated by mandated establishments, from UNESCO to Interpol and others, we’re left pissed off,” they write. “If our mandated establishments can’t be trusted to truth test, who can we consider?”

Whereas Yates and Brodie present proof that Interpol in addition to UNESCO, the US Department of Justice, and the FBI have cited the “third-largest” factoid to tell necessary coverage and funding initiatives despite the fact that it’s unverifiable and unsubstantiated, archaeologist Michael Press challenges their assertion {that a} reliance on the declare ends in poor policy. “The repetition of false claims about antiquities doesn’t trigger poor coverage — predetermined poor coverage causes the repetition of false claims,” Press suggested in response to the paper. Whether or not or not the circulation of the factoid in educational literature, within the media, or by policymakers has finished extra hurt than good stays unclear. What is obvious is that the declare persists as a result of it’s helpful for these crafting coverage, for soundbites within the common press, and in making the case for governmental funding initiatives aimed toward curbing the commerce. 

And whether or not the unlawful commerce in antiquities is ranked third or forty third, the hurt is similar — the looting of archaeological websites and theft from museums and different websites within the quest for gadgets for the antiquities market. A looted artifact ripped from the bottom has misplaced its archaeological context, information is misplaced, and locals are unable to entry their previous. As Yates and Brodie spotlight, there isn’t a actual must measure the unlawful commerce to evaluate its unfavourable impression: We solely must see a picture of a looted landscape, or the feet of a statue whose torso and head have been removed for the market.

Nearly 50 years later, the “antiquities trade as the world’s third largest illegal market” factoid is alive and effectively, despite the fact that it has no foundation in reality. The “lazy” repetition of the assertion by these charged with the safety of cultural heritage, the media, and a few researchers, Yates and Brodie write, reinforces the prevailing notion of an financial worth of the previous over cultural and contextual meanings.


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