Since 2011, Egypt’s police force and other governmental authorities, overwhelmed by political upheaval, have let their protection of the country’s thousands of archaeological sites and museums fall to a bare minimum. Looters have taken full advantage of this opportunity.
More than a thousand objects were stolen from the Malawi National Museum in Minya last year and satellite photographs show some 10,000 hastily dug looting pits cratering the country’s archaeological sites. In some places, more organized gangs of looters have used dynamite and bulldozers to uncover and steal antiquities under the protection of guards armed with automatic weapons.
In response, the Egyptian government has attempted to stanch the flow of antiquities to the United States, which has some of the highest demand for these artifacts. In 2013, America imported more than $10 million worth of Egyptian antiquities — a 105 percent increase from 2012. The Egyptian government requested a bilateral agreement under America’s Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act. If the State Department approves the request after an advisory committee meets next week, United States Customs agents will be responsible for seizing Egyptian antiquities that cross illegally over the border.
Archaeologists are hoping that the agreement will weaken the black market for these items. But it’s not enough just to watch for them at the border; we must also take steps to slow the demand for these pieces.
Americans who help fuel the multimillion-dollar black market in antiquities are not just extremely wealthy individuals, building museum-quality collections. Since looters can go years without uncovering highly valued pieces, they sustain themselves on a steady trickle of small finds: coins, jewelry, vases, figurines, architectural fragments, textiles and manuscripts. These items are sold for a few dollars to a series of middlemen who inflate the price with each successive transaction. Still, the online price of an ancient coin is relatively cheap, as little as $20.
Buying one of these coins or another small antiquity might seem insignificant, but it isn’t, in much the same way that buying a piece of ivory jewelry, no matter how small, isn’t worth the slaughter of a poached elephant.
To understand the past, archaeologists must painstakingly scrutinize the entire contents of a site, not just the intact objects that collectors might want. We analyze human skeletons to understand the history of our current diseases, and burial offerings for traces of society and religion.
But a looted site is almost useless to an archaeologist. The cast-aside bones decay quickly in the open air. Food residue adhering to shards of vessels, which tells us so much about diet and culture, is scraped away. The diverse objects found in a single tomb are scattered.
Even if Egypt is successful in obtaining a bilateral agreement, victory over looters is far from assured. Enforcement of the agreement falls entirely on United States Customs, which shoulders the responsibility for detecting all shipments of illicit antiquities as they are smuggled into the country.
Customs agents would have to become sudden experts in this specific kind of ancient art. With the help of only a few pages of illustrations added to their handbooks, the agents are supposed to be able to distinguish a protected Egyptian jar from an unprotected Libyan vase or from a mere forgery or reproduction. They have to do this all over again each time a new agreement with another country is signed — all the while also searching for guns, drugs and the victims of human trafficking amid the flood of people who cross over the border each day.
The American government has 16 such agreements with other countries already, and while they have proved to be valuable tools for repatriating antiquities, it is hardly surprising that only a few thousand objects have been seized and returned under the auspices of the Customs Bureau.
We don’t have the time or resources to treat antiquities like drugs to be seized at the border. Instead, we need to change the desires of potential antiquities buyers. Public awareness is one big step: Consumers who start thinking about ancient coins as they think about ivory are going to do a lot less buying of antiquities that may have been looted. Encouraging collectors to fund and participate in sanctioned archaeological excavations could be a way to channel their love for ancient artifacts.
We should also use targeted regulatory changes to decrease the financial incentives that motivate some collectors. The Internal Revenue Service should refuse to allow tax deductions for charitable donations of antiquities without documentation of legal export, on the grounds that these antiquities are most likely stolen.
Regardless of the best intentions of American collectors, high demand encourages looters. Cutting back on our consumerist tendencies in the future is the best way to protect our knowledge of the global past.
Erin Thompson, a professor at the City University of New York, is the author of the forthcoming book To Own the Past: How Collectors Reveal, Shape, and Destroy History.