Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Public photo archive of looted antiquities vital to eradicating grave problem of looting

A reader wrote to the Editor of The Art Newspaper this week calling for the need to have a public photo archive of looted antiquities to aide prospective buyers in their provenance research of potentially looted objects. When it comes to purchasing antiquities today, the volume of undocumented/ looted antiquities (the two terms have become synonymous) on the market is such that tainting an object's provenance by way of publishing photos of similar/identical looted objects will in most cases ensure it does indeed remain unsold. The importance of this reality goes beyond an individual prospective buyer avoiding the purchase of illicit objects -- ensuring that looted antiquities remain unsold is crucial to eradicating looting itself. Results of ethnographic studies around the world have shown that looting is a profit-making business that is the direct result of market demand (see Patty Gerstenblith article) and with the antiquities market being valued at $2-6 billion annually, the stakes are high. The causal link between market demand and looting has, in my opinion, been conclusively proven (as I've previously written in the context of Marion True's trial) and one highly effective way of controlling market demand is through a public photo archive of looted artworks. In fact, this method is probably more effective at combating looting than the body of piecemeal legislation enacted in the US over the last decade with a view to deterring trade in illicit art (notably, the NSPA, the ARPA and the CPIA). The Art Loss Register is the obvious candidate to fulfill the mission of public archive and I would urge it to expand the scope of its valuable services to include this much-needed archive (to some extent it already does as looted artworks are by definition stolen). Much of our understanding of the evolution of human civilization has been attributed to stratigraphic excavation and as Patty Gerstenblith points out, "this full body of contextualized information is a destructible, non-renewable cultural resource," forever destroyed by looters. Not to mention the harm caused to the objects themselves and the distortions to the historical record resulting from flooding the market with undocumented artworks.

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