Christie’s had an auction of antiquities on Dec. 11, and some of the objects up for auction were ‘matched’ with photographic archives seized from dealers and collectors who deal in illicit material. These matches have always left me a little uneasy. If an object is matched, it means it is most likely looted. But the auction houses have no good way to match these objects because these photo archives are closely held by law enforcement agencies and a group of researchers. There are claims that the auction houses could go directly to Greek or Italian officials and have these objects checked against these databases for free. As Christos Tsiogiannis answered when asked by Catherine Schofield Sezgin: “The auction houses, and the members of the international antiquities market in general, always have the opportunity to contact the Italian and Greek authorities directly, before the auctions. These authorities will check, for free, every single object for them.” But it seems they do not do this. Objects are invariably withdrawn after a match, where they disappear back into collections in most cases, and we are left with little progress in stemming future looting and protection of sites. And so each new antiquities auction continues the cycle of public shaming and return. But the looting continues.
That was the core point of a paper I presented last year in a meeting of ISPAC and the United Nations office on Drugs and Crime in Courmayeur. Some of the papers have been collected and published by Stefano Manacorda and Arianna Visconti. I’ve posted my short paper “Two Ways of Policing Cultural Heritage” on SSRN. From the introduction:
The title of this paper is, of course, a play upon the title of Professor John Henry Merryman’s well-known essay which laid out the ways of conceptualizing cultural property law there are two ways to think about cultural objects. One as part of a national patrimony, and second as a piece of our collective cultural heritage. In a similar way there are two ways to envision jurisdiction of cultural heritage crime. Criminal law can of course apply to policing the individuals responsible for stealing, looting, selling and transporting illicit art and antiquities. Or, law enforcement resources can be used to secure the successful return of stolen art, and the protection of sites. The criminal law can regulate people; and it can also regulate things. In order to produce meaningful change in the disposition of art, it must do both effectively. Focusing on art at the expense of criminal deterrence for individuals is an incomplete strategy.