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Last Updated: Wednesday, 14 January, 2004, 09:42 GMT
Clamping down on the looting trade
By Lawrence Pollard
BBC arts correspondent

Britain had long dragged its heels over ratifying various international conventions aimed at tackling the illegal trade in looted antiquities.

Baghdad Museum
Guards were deployed at Baghdad museum after the looting
But all that was changed by the looting of the Baghdad museum as Saddam Hussein fell.

The international outrage at the destruction of cultural property meant politicians wanted to be seen to be doing something, and this year the Britain's Dealing in Cultural Objects Act has come into force to try to deal with looted artefacts.

But can political action in Britain have an effect on the digging up of antiquities in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere?

Provenance probe

The point of the legislation is to set a maximum jail term of 7 years for anyone dealing dishonestly in unlawfully removed cultural objects from anywhere in the world.

Its sponsor, Labour MP and former archaeologist Richard Allen sees it as setting down a marker of the West's willingness to deal locally with a problem akin to a globalised trade.

"We're not comfortable with the idea of us going about hoovering up the world's antiquities, for the benefit of our own people because we can afford to do it, recognising that often other countries have a weaker infrastructure to reinforce their heritage law," he says.

"Some material will be looted - our responsibility is not to buy that material. "

Frankly if people have no food in their mouths, and they see a source of income they will probably take it - that is an economic issue
James Ede
Dealer in antiquities
London is a major entrepot in the antiquities trade and has always had a reputation as a centre of the illegal trade too.

This is strenuously denied by James Ede, a second generation dealer who says times have changed and the London market it clean.

"Many years ago my father told me of a chap who brought in some goods in a suitcase. He said they'd been in his family for years, they'd been in this country for years, but when he took a look he saw that unfortunately they were wrapped up in yesterday's copy of the Rome newspaper - which rather gave the game away."

Mr Ede says nowadays there are far fewer suspicious gentlemen touting suitcases full of freshly smuggled Roman vases.

The antiquities trade is much more careful now about establishing the provenance of objects.

This is partly because a detailed history for an object now adds to its value.

"Twenty years ago provenance was not of any real meaning, and that is something the market has pursued," Mr Ede says.

"We have identified the provenance of lots of pieces and I have to say we've identified stolen pieces as well. We've been responsible probably for recovering more stolen goods than the law agencies of some of these countries."

Mr Ede welcomes the new act but has doubts as to its real effectiveness, especially as the crucial database of stolen antiquities promised by the UK Government has yet to materialise.

Keeping it up

Meanwhile the trade continues.

Some observers say it works like the drugs trade: if there were no consumers for the end product there would be no suppliers.

The vast majority of antiquities are the result of chance finds, either because of economic activity, particularly farming, but very often war
James Ede
Professor Colin Renfrew is one of Britain's most prominent archaeologists, and has campaigned vigorously for more legislation and controls.

He says there is no moral case to be made for collecting artefacts which are taken out of their country of origin.

"The peasants who dig the objects out of the ground because there are people who pay good money for them, they are the innocent wrongdoers, the people who pay money for antiquities when they have no idea where they're from - they're the people I would blame.

"Curators, museum directors who willingly purchase or accept as bequests material they know they have no provenance for, they're the real villains, the real pushers who drive this trade."

If there was no demand from the West, goes this argument, the price would drop, sending a message down the chain to the supplier that its not worth looting.

However this strategy has been described by one critic as "naive prohibitionism".

Dealer James Ede says you cannot stop much of what we term "looted" or illicit antiquities from appearing.

The legitimate antiquities market he represents should be allowed to deal in them, he says, rather than driving the whole business underground.

His basic point is that we should co-operate with the inevitable.

"The vast majority of antiquities are the result of chance finds, either because of economic activity, particularly farming, but very often war, we have a phrase for it: "excavation by mortar fire" which produces a lot of broken objects."

"Frankly if people have no food in their mouths, and they see a source of income they will probably take it. That is an economic issue and until the economics are addressed, I don't think there is anything that can be done."

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