Last week a number of folks drew my attention to the news that in Greece two men have been sentenced to life in prison for dealing in antiquities. The objects they looted and handled were worth an estimated €12 million. Two more men were jailed for 20 and 16 years. Based on the very brief AP report, it seems the men were digging near Thessaloniki close to an ancient cemetery.
I have seen a few remark that these very stiff sentences should be applauded and even are a sign that the Greek government takes archaeological looting seriously. I don’t know the specifics of this case, and it is not clear if these four sentences will be appealed and what kinds of parole options the violators will have. So we are dealing with a number of unknowns. And as a result I’d like to make a humble plea for a little sobriety when sentences of this nature are handed down. Too many archaeologists and other advocates hop up and down and either rejoice at these strong sentences—or criticize probation and fines which are at the other end of this spectrum. I think having a vigorous debate about what role prosecutions, and custodial sentences may play in reducing looting is a welcome development, but one should not make the mistake of jumping into sentencing policy without at least some cursory introduction very complicated field.
The deterrent power of criminal sanctions is very much an open question about even the ‘big’ crimes the justice system is supposed to prevent, things like murder and armed robbery. In the United States and in many other nations the criminal justice system is an imperfect mechanism which too often is asked to accomplish things it cannot. To expect this flawed institution to come riding in and solve the problems of heritage management, looting, and theft is terribly unrealistic. As many have pointed out, there is no magic bullet for heritage crime. Police and prosecutors have a role to play, but the stakeholders need to step up as well. Nations of origin, auction houses, buyers, and museums should not expect a flawed institution to fix what they are unable or unwilling to fix themselves.