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Friday, 6 April, 2001, 13:18 GMT 14:18 UK
Smuggled treasures 'being sold in UK'
A looter
Looters operate in broad daylight at Jordan's historical sites
The government is under pressure to tighten laws surrounding the sale of ancient artefacts after a BBC investigation revealed antiquities looted from sites in Jordan could be making their way onto London markets.

Hundreds of ancient archaeological sites in Jordan are being plundered by looters looking for treasures, which are then being smuggled out of the country and sold for huge profits in Western cities, including London.

Ancient artefacts can fetch huge profits in London
In the UK the arts market is worth an estimated 4.5 billion per year - 15 million of which is generated by antiquities from around the world.

Most of that trade is legal, but, the Jordanian authorities say, unless something is done to curb the demand, their heritage will be lost forever.

'Worth the risk'

The looters themselves risk five years imprisonment if they are caught but, operating in broad daylight, they appear undeterred.

One looter told the BBC that his activities were worth the risk: "I am unemployed and poor," he said.

"I can earn one dinar (about 90 pence) if I discover something."

The Jordanian Ambassador to London Timor Dagestani said it was almost impossible to prevent looting as there were more than 120,000 archaeological sites in the country.

Historical sites such as the town of Safi, which lies at the southern end of the Dead Sea, are being destroyed as looters break into 5000-year-old burial tombs looking for treasures.

Konstantine Politis, from the British Museum has been legally excavating the site since the late 80s.

The government is determined to stamp down as far as possible on the illicit trade of cultural property

Spokesperson for the Department of Culture, Media and Sports
He said: "In collaboration with the Jordanian Department of Antiquities I have been doing some research and undercover research also with the antiquities dealers - both middle men in Jordan and in England - and it's obvious that objects are being exported from Jordan to London.

"I think there is no doubt that objects from this site are ending up in vast quantity in London."

Treasures looted from archaeological sites can currently be bought and sold legally in the UK, even if they were smuggled out of their country of origin illegally.

But some archaelogists want much tighter control over the sale of antiquities. They say the trade creates a demand which fuels the activities of looters.

Those who want to restrict the trade are pointing to a high profile sale of antiquities at London's Fortnum and Mason store, which they argue should not be taking place.

But in a statement, Fortnum and Mason said they had done nothing wrong and all items being displayed in the sale, which is taking place throughout April, were perfectly legal on the UK Market.

It added that its sale aimed to promote public awareness and the aims of conservationists.


A government task-force set up last year to examine the extent of the UK's involvement in the trade of antiquities recommended the introduction of a law making it a criminal offence to dishonestly import, deal in or be in possession of any cultural object which was known or believed to have been stolen or illegally excavated.

In March, the UK signed up to the 1970 United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) Convention which gives members the right to recover stolen antiquities which surface in the countries of fellow signatories.

The department of Culture, Media and Sport is also working closely with the Home Office to examine the feasibility of setting up a database of stolen and illicitly gained cultural property.

A spokesperson for the department said: "The government is determined to stamp down as far as possible on the illicit trade of cultural property, and these measures will make life a lot more difficult for the minority of dealers who chose to besmirch their profession and trade illicitly."

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See also:

17 Sep 00 | Middle East
Jordanian police foil illegal mummy sale
24 May 00 | UK Politics
Crackdown on antiques black market
24 Mar 99 | Middle East
Lebanon recovers ancient treasures
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