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

Just because you read something on the internet or hear it repeated for almost 50 years doesn’t make it a fact. In the latest issue of Antiquity, members of the research consortium Trafficking Culture Donna Yates and Neil Brodie present an important deconstruction of a factoid long used to describe the illegal market in antiquities: that the illegal trade in antiquities is third in volume only to other criminal networks involving narcotics and arms.

Though Yates and Brodie agree that the illegal trade in antiquities is a matter of serious concern, they argue that the reiteration of and reliance on this unsubstantiated claim only serve to undermine credibility and attempt to quantify the harm of illegal trading in the wrong terms. 

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“The idea that the severity of crime should be measured in comparative terms through monetary value rather than through harms to society is upsetting,” the researchers write in their conclusion. “Antiquities and other cultural objects are fundamental components of our heritage and identity. We do not need to rank their illicit trade financially to render the social harms more damaging.”

The statement, they continue, evinces a “serious flaw in public understanding and thus in our public presentation of the harms related to looting and trafficking.”

Through some impressive detective work, the authors trace the origin of this factoid to a 1974 article in the Journal of Field Archaeology in which a United States Department of Treasury bureaucrat is quoted as stating that “the international trade in art is second only to narcotics.” There is no supporting evidence for his claim in this announcement, but by the early 1980s, the assertion had become an established “fact,” reiterated without corroboration in academic publications and in the popular press. Citations in scholarly literature by cultural property legal luminaries like Lisa J. Borodkin, Patrick Boylan, L.M. Kaye, James A. R. Nafziger, and Norman Palmer provide little or no evidence for the size and scope of the antiquities market, but the intellectual imprimatur results in a factoid entrenched in discussions surrounding the protection of the past. 

Illicitly traded statue seized by the US Department of Homeland Security (photo courtesy US Homeland Security Investigations)

National and international agencies and governments concerned with the protection of cultural heritage have also used this factoid in a quest to garner support for their cause. Lumping together the illegal trade in antiquities with arms and drugs is an opportunity to capitalize on public sympathy and outrage at the loss of cultural heritage, a chance to make governments and people care. Facts and figures are impressive and certainly assist in making the case for why we should be concerned about the illegal trade in antiquities and its associated evils. But Yates and Brodie argue that the use of this factoid to craft real-world governmental policy could lead to “ineffective measures being taken against the illicit antiquities trade,” all based on uncorroborated information.

“As the claim has been and continues to be repeated by mandated institutions, from UNESCO to Interpol and others, we are left frustrated,” they write. “If our mandated institutions cannot be trusted to fact check, who can we believe?”

While Yates and Brodie provide evidence that Interpol as well as UNESCO, the US Department of Justice, and the FBI have cited the “third-largest” factoid to inform important policy and funding initiatives even though it is unverifiable and unsubstantiated, archaeologist Michael Press challenges their assertion that a reliance on the claim results in poor policy. “The repetition of false claims about antiquities doesn’t cause poor policy — predetermined poor policy causes the repetition of false claims,” Press suggested in response to the paper. Whether or not the circulation of the factoid in academic literature, in the media, or by policymakers has done more harm than good remains unclear. What is clear is that the claim persists because it is handy for those crafting policy, for soundbites in the popular press, and in making the case for governmental funding initiatives aimed at curbing the trade. 

And whether the illegal trade in antiquities is ranked third or 43rd, the harm is the same — the looting of archaeological sites and theft from museums and other sites in the quest for items for the antiquities market. A looted artifact ripped from the ground has lost its archaeological context, knowledge is lost, and locals are unable to access their past. As Yates and Brodie highlight, there is no real need to measure the illegal trade to assess its negative impact: We only need to see an image of a looted landscape, or the feet of a statue whose torso and head have been removed for the market.

Almost 50 years later, the “antiquities trade as the world’s third largest illegal market” factoid is alive and well, even though it has no basis in fact. The “lazy” repetition of the assertion by those charged with the protection of cultural heritage, the media, and some researchers, Yates and Brodie write, reinforces the prevailing notion of an economic value of the past over cultural and contextual meanings.


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