Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Looting-Trafficking-Repatriation Cycle

Looting of cultural property and the repatriation of antiquities represent the beginning and end of a cycle that has been occurring for centuries if not millennia. In the present, reports of looting of manuscripts in Mali and repatriation of Nok statuettes to Nigeria reflect the overt parts of the cycle, while the interim parts remain less visible. How does cultural patrimony come to be in the museums and private collections from which the objects are returned to the source nations?
In some cases, the antiquities are transferred with the consent of the source nations or purchased legally with complete provenance. In other cases, the antiquities are trafficked. The latter method of transfer has been receiving increasing attention over the past decade. The UNESCO 1970 Convention was a watershed in: raising awareness of trafficking in cultural property, placing responsibility of due diligence on the purchaser, and enabling source nations to make claims for repatriation. Since then, the questions of repatriation simmered until coming to a boil in 2005 with the publicized claims that Italy and Greece made against high-profile museums in the United States.  
Recent reports on a wave of repatriations and the seeming political power of source nations reflect a shift in attitude on the part of museums in “market nations,” as do initiatives to raise the standards of due diligence for acquisitions by museums. But what’s the effect on the illicit market in antiquities, especially since the standards for private collectors remain less transparent?
Mideast Jordan Syria.JPEGA few reports over the past week would suggest that the looting and trafficking are thriving. For example, Jordan and Oman are suspected of serving as transfer points in the traffic. The common border with Syria makes Jordan a point of transfer for the looting that has been occurring amidst the conflict, and Oman’s director general of archaeology and museums at the Ministry of Heritage and Culture (MoHC) concedes the nation’s geographically strategic location for international smuggling.
The looting and trafficking indicate an active market, which suggests that some private collects are not following the example of museums in adopting higher standards of due diligence. The increased awareness of exploitation of cultural property by non-state actors seems, however, to inspire news coverage of looting. Recently, UNESCO's Assistant Director-General for Culture Francesco Bandarin was quoted as having "information that some (Syrian cultural) items are beginning to appear on the market.”
The reporting does offer progress in shedding light on the trafficking part of the cycle.

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