Thursday, February 4, 2010

Ideas about the Causes of the Illicit Trade in Cultural Property

The highly publicized Italian investigation into Giacomo Medici1 highlighted issues surrounding the trade in cultural property in our interconnected world and has called attention to the pervasiveness of art theft and smuggling.

So what encourages this illicit trade in cultural property? Since World War II, there has been an increase in interest in antiquities and primitive art and artifacts among collectors, fueling the demand and creating a black market in looted cultural property.2 This demand in art-market states promotes the theft and illegal export of cultural property from the countries of origin.3 Clandestine looting is further encouraged by the fact that, in art source states, there tends to be a shortage of funds available for the proper protection of archeological sites from looters. If services are provided, they are often poorly organized and, even, corrupt.4

Art critic Robert Hughes observes, “‘Art is no longer priceless, it is ‘priceful.’ We overvalue art and then we’re surprised when the chalices are stolen.’”5 Suppressing the illicit movement of cultural property is difficult because of the large amount of money to be made in this market. Indeed, the purchase of the Euphronios krater did much to encourage the illicit trade in cultural property and the formation of a complex underground network for looted antiquities. The tombaroli, or tomb-robbers, in Italy “went crazy” when they learned that the Met had paid $1 million for the krater, the most ever paid for an antiquity at the time. It intensified their efforts to uncover more loot that would secure such a sensational price.6

Overall, there are large economic incentives for dealing in illicit antiquities as opposed to other smuggling crimes. For example, in the United States and abroad, the profits in antiquities smuggling are larger and the penalties much less severe than dealing in comparably priced amounts of narcotics.7 So-called “subsistence looting” is commonplace in many impoverished areas of art source countries; in China, for example, a single archaeological find can generate as much money as a year’s farming income.8 A Peruvian professional tomb-robber, a buaquero, said, “‘Around here, there is no other kind of work. I used to work at the dairy factory, but it closed. There is no work but looting.’”9 The economic incentives of looting prove to be seductive to many individuals in these countries of origin.

We know that Hitler had motivations outside the economic realm -- he wanted to create a museum that would showcase his power. The simple "ownership" of cultural property can be an incentive to collectors as well. In the past, "wars were fought in which art was not only the compensation but the cause itself;" in 1648, Queen Christina of Switzerland ordered an invasion of Prague in order to seize the emperor's extensive art collection and library.10

Any other thoughts as to what encourages looting and the illicit trade? Leave your ideas here!

1. See January 27, 2010 post.
2. Bator, Paul. The international trade of art. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983.
3. Cunning, Andrea. "The Safeguarding of Cultural Property in Times of War and Peace." Tulsa Journal of Comparative and International Law 11, no. 211 (2003): 211-238.
4. Bator.
5. John E. Conklin. Art crime. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 1994. 14.
6. Watson, Paul and Todeschini, Cecilia. The Medici conspiracy. New York: PublicAffairs, 2006. 333.
7. Borodkin, Lisa. "The Economics of Antiquities Looting and a Proposed Legal Alternative (in note)." Columbia Law Review 95, no. 2 (1995): 377-417.
8. Chang, D.N. "Stealing Beauty: Stopping the Madness of Illicit Art Trafficking." Houston Journal of International Law 28, no.3 (2006): 829-869.
9. Atwood, Roger. Stealing history: Tomb raiders, smugglers, and the looting of the ancient world. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2004. 32.
10. Birov, Victoria. (1997-1998). "Prize or Plunder?: The Pillage of Works of Art and the International Law of War." New York University Journal of International Law and Politics 30, no. 201 (1997-1998): 201-249.


  1. Fascinating analysis, Nora. I wonder how much ideas of cultural superiority play into this on same level. In the case of say, an African mask, I feel like western institutions might feel they are somehow elevating a 'primitive' art by appropriating it. I wonder if there is any sort of underlying belief that these works are more exotics than art, whether that is spoken or not. I wonder if museums think these works have more value when they are viewed by the 'right' people (ie, western museum-goers) than when they are appreciated by the cultures to which they really belong.

  2. I think there is a lot of merit in your point, Kate. A number of museum professionals have expressed their thoughts on the importance of the movement of art and artifacts so that museums may be "a great encyclopedia” of the cultural heritage of mankind. But why is it that these encyclopedic museums (the Met, the British Museum, the Louvre, for example) are in the West? I can cite the Louvre's on-going Abu Dhabi project as one example to the contrary, but is an understanding of mankind's culture more important among Western inhabitants? This is an issue that is deserving of further discussion.