A woman photographs a twice-stolen ancient Persian artifact in Tehran's national museum on Oct. 9, 2018, after the New York Supreme Court ordered it's return to Iran.(Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images)
The looting of antiquities has a long history, because the creation of beauty has often inspired the desire to steal and possess it.
Fast forward to today and technology is playing a pivotal role in the global ancient artifacts trade. Thieves are using the anonymity of the internet to sell stolen relics, while authorities are using cutting-edge tools to assess the damage to plundered sites and raise awareness of stolen works.
History is full of leaders, such as Alexander the Great and the Roman Emperor Trajan, who plundered cultural artifacts during their reigns. Sadly, cultural objects have also been weaponized throughout history. Since ancient times, leaders have destroyed cultural property because its obliteration is powerful propaganda displaying a leader's dominance and ability to crush and degrade enemies. Hitler famously did this by labeling art as "degenerate" and then destroying thousands of artworks in bonfires.
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Other leaders have looted items to benefit from the riches and to connect themselves and their dominions to past glories. Napoleon notably attempted to create a "New Rome" in Paris by plundering art from across Europe and shipping it to the capital of France. One of the notable masterpieces that he stole was the Four Horses of San Marco in Venice, which was repatriated in 1815. (Ironically, they were originally displayed at the Hippodrome of Constantinople, and were brought to the Venetian Republic after being looted during the Fourth Crusade.)
Collectors Have Direct Impact on Illegal Digging of Sites
However, antiquities are more than politicized objects. Museums display them as symbols of shared human heritage. Archaeologists and historians study them to better understand the past. Artists and poets have been inspired by them (like Lord Byron and his famed musings on the Parthenon Marbles). And of course, people collect these coveted objects.
While nothing is inherently wrong with collecting antiquities (some disagree with this assertion, arguing that there should not be any market for antiquities), they should be acquired only after conducting due diligence.
Today, it is easier than ever to purchase antiquities from around the world. Not only are there brick-and-mortar galleries, but a multitude of dealers sell wares online. With the click of a button, people can quickly buy objects from remote corners of the globe. According to research by Katie Paul and Amr Al-Azm, online platforms such as Facebook proliferate the trade. But unfortunately, their findings already revealed that these platforms sell not only legally acquired objects but also looted antiquities.
One of the biggest problems with buying loot is that it incentivizes theft. Therefore, collectors have a direct impact on illicit digging and destruction. According to some claims, the market for looted antiquities is demand-driven. Increasing the demand for stolen goods encourages people to continue plundering, stealing history from humanity, destroying archaeological sites, and smuggling illicit goods across international borders. For this reason, it is important that collectors refrain from black market acquisitions. Unfortunately, too many looted antiquities make it onto the market.
Technology's Role in Selling and Safeguarding Relics
Technology has a role in the antiquities market, but it is a two-sided coin. Technology makes it both easier to sell looted goods and to safeguard heritage. Today's online marketplace is attractive to black market participants. Buyers and sellers hide behind pseudonyms, making their activities harder to track. The ease and fast pace of transactions makes it easier to evade detection.
Whereas law enforcement agencies monitor galleries and their inventories, it is more difficult to do so for sellers hiding behind screen names and in unknown locations. In 2015, CBS News reported on how smugglers sell items online. The report revealed that looters quickly disposed of stolen goods by selling them through messaging platforms such as WhatsApp.
Fortunately, technological advances also assist law enforcement agencies and heritage specialists. For one, technology allows for increased accuracy in assessing damage to sites. The now famed comparative satellite images of Apamea in Syria (taken at the start of the nation's civil war and then again after a few years of conflict) attest to the devastating effect of war on archaeological sites. The photos illustrate the extent of destruction, while putting the world on notice of the plunder. For this reason, anyone (including museums) acquiring objects from this area should be mindful of extensive looting and conduct thorough due diligence or refrain from purchasing these items.
As technology advances, satellite images will also create a record of unexcavated objects, potentially protecting them from future pillage. Technology also provides us with information about specific thefts.
A recent repatriation dispute illustrates this process.
An Achaemenid limestone bas-relief was stolen from Persepolis, Iran, in 1935 during official excavations by the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago. Authorities were alerted and the Iranian government attempted to recover the valuable artifact, but it disappeared on the black market. Due to photographs taken during the excavations, authorities had evidence of the item and its theft.
An academic, Lindsay Allen, who would not have otherwise seen the relief for sale, discovered its whereabouts after it appeared on an art fair's Instagram account in 2017. Equipped with the images, and with the ease of the internet, the British classicist contacted me for legal advice, and we informed authorities in the United States of the looted artifact. Within days, the relief was seized and legal proceedings began, leading to the Manhattan District Attorney's Office eventually repatriating the work.
Online Resources Raising Awareness of Looting
All of this was made possible because of meticulous documentation taken in the 1930s by the Oriental Institute and the object's photographic appearance on an online platform. Today, technology is even more advanced, with high-resolution and three-dimensional imaging that can definitively identity an object. Advances in material forensics also allow scientists to accurately analyze objects, identify their origins, and evaluate their authenticity. (Buyers should be aware that many fake antiquities are circulating on the market.)
What's more, the pervasive use of technology and social media has raised public awareness of looting and the associated trade. The FBI has issued warnings that loot from several war-torn regions has entered the market. For those interested in acquiring artifacts from these regions, the widespread information raises alarms and places collectors on notice not to purchase these objects. It also makes it more difficult for buyers and dealers to feign ignorance in legal cases in which they claim to act as good faith purchasers in order to claim legitimate title to looted artifacts.
So how can technology be used to fight against looting? Online resources are powerful tools for due diligence. Interpol operates an online database of stolen art that allows potential buyers to search records of stolen art as part of their due diligence. And the Carabinieri's Command for the Protection of Cultural Heritage in Italy (the country's art crime squad) recently launched a free to download app (iTPC) to assist with due diligence. The app allows users to input a photo of an artwork and search for a match in a database of stolen cultural property.
As these resources develop, due diligence tools will be increasingly valuable to collectors. Besides those online resources, the internet also allows information to travel quickly, assisting all art market participants and regulators to potentially stop the sale of loot.
Cultural heritage reflects the best in mankind — our desire to create art and civilization through our creative spirit. But these objects also inspire our worst behavior — the desire to own cultural objects, even at the expense of destroying them for future generations. The protection of cultural heritage has always been a challenge, but technology should be used to protect humanity's greatest treasures.
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