Fighting illegal international trade in cultural artefacts
Researchers at the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research are beginning work on a project which seeks to find solutions to combat the global trade in illicit artefacts. Each year, objects of cultural importance and significant value are looted and then smuggled around the world, often turning up in private collections and even museums in the West.
The project, which has been funded by the European Research Council, will gather and analyse data ranging from illegal excavation and pricing structures to the motives of traffickers. The aim is not only to develop new approaches to regulate the international trade of cultural goods but also to help policymakers better define laws to fight criminal activities.
Much of the problem with this trade, as with the traffic in wildlife or people, is hidden by a lack of a solid research base, as project leader Dr Simon Mackenzie explains: ‘There’s a definite dearth of evidence on some pretty fundamental aspects of this trade. Everybody knows that illicit trafficking in cultural heritage has been going on for a very long time. But it’s a very private trade and because of that, it is difficult to record accurate statistics on the size of the problem globally.’
So where do the researchers start? At the beginning, says Dr Mackenzie. Adopting a method used by a colleague researching conflict diamonds, the team will take a multi-sited ethnographic approach; in other words they will conduct a series of observations and interviews at various points in a chosen global supply chain. ‘The ideal for research in a criminal trafficking market is to follow an object all the way through the illicit trading chain from beginning to end. We have identified a known trade route – starting in Cambodia, crossing the border into Thailand, then on to Europe and finishing either in London or New York, the world’s two centres for the antiquities trade – and we will identify key people, looters, local police, customs officials, dealers and collectors at each point, to interview for our research.’
Education plays a role in trying to combat the trade. Sometimes customs officials are unaware of the rarity of objects they come across. In one well-known case in New York, Egyptian artefacts were smuggled out of Egypt and into America by fooling customs officers into thinking they were simply tourist goods. There is also a role in educating individuals about the impact of the trade so that they don’t buy looted antiquities any more.
‘People are buying and selling cultural objects in the international market for millions of dollars and that money filters back down the chain of supply to the looters and small-time dealers in source countries. If we can stop that from happening, we will remove the incentive for stealing cultural objects and begin to unwind the criminal side of the market. So we are increasingly using an economic type of analysis in order to try to understand how to solve a criminal problem – which is not the way it’s usually done by legal analysts. The normal approach has in the past been to target criminals with domestic or international criminal laws, but our research finds difficulties with the implementation of this standard criminal law approach in a global context, and as well as improving the reach of the criminal law we are now looking for a complementary market-based approach.’
Prevention of the illicit global trade in antiquities is helped by a number of international declarations from organisations like UNESCO, but Dr Mackenzie thinks that more practical approaches are also required.
‘The United Nations Office on Drugs & Crime is currently considering the application of their Convention against Transnational Organised Crime to this particular criminal market. This contains a number of practical measures about expeditious police and judicial cooperation across borders, and using money-laundering seizures. In that regard, for example, when somebody buys a looted antiquity we might argue that the purchase price paid to the supplier is the proceeds of crime and on that basis the police might be authorised to seize the money. This is a fast-evolving field of research where new ideas are constantly emerging, so we are hopeful that we can make a major contribution to the protection of the world’s cultural heritage resources through this project.’
‘People are buying and selling cultural objects in the international market for millions of dollars and that money filters back down the chain of supply to the looters and small-time dealers in source countries. If we can stop that from happening, we will remove the incentive for stealing cultural objects and begin to unwind the criminal side of the market.’
The research programme aims to improve our understanding of trafficking in cultural objects (the mechanisms involved, the motivations of the variety of actors, the structural drivers of the international market in looted cultural objects) in order to design new and innovative regulatory responses to the problem.
The research is radically interdisciplinary, involving a dialogue between the disciplines of criminology and archaeology, but also perhaps less obviously, considerations across the boundaries of law, anthropology, cultural studies, international relations, politics, economics and development studies.
It is pioneering in both research terms and in terms of impact. In research terms, the proposed research pushes the boundaries of academic and policy knowledge about this area of global crime by introducing new data sources and combining an interrogation of these by way of measurements of market activity (even such apparently simple matters as the relative size of the criminal side of the antiquities trade are not currently known) with multi-sited ethnographic work at the key pressure points of the global supply chain in order to develop understanding of how the illicit trade works.
In terms of impact, the debate about illicit cultural objects is currently in deadlock – activists argue against the looting of sites and other thefts which feed the market, while those with trade interests resist the implication that they are party to wrongdoing and insist they are performing a valuable cultural service by collecting, preserving and displaying valuable cultural objects. The research proposed here promises to break this deadlock between trade and anti-trade.
Through designing new approaches to the socio-legal regulation of the international trade in cultural objects, and its various domestic national trading markets, this research study will provide practical evidence-based regulatory policy implications which promise to allow the global trade to continue to fulfil its cultural remit but not at the expense of criminal activity at source or in the supply chain by way of looting and trafficking. Structures of regulation have been established in response to the moral concern the illicit trade raises, rather than being based on evidence-oriented investigation. While some of these regulatory efforts have had modest success, for the most part they have been a failure in stopping the illicit trade, which continues today.