Buying Fake Antiquities (UPDATE)

Felix Salmon has an interesting discussion of the sale of fake antiquities, prompted by Charles Stanish’s initial article, with a lengthy response by Prof. Stanish himself.  As I commented there, those who follow these debates have enjoyed a thought-provoking series of responses to Prof. Stanish’s terrific initial article. I don’t doubt that many collectors are buying fakes. But I wonder at the efficacy of the typical archaeologist position—calling their actions an “irrational behavior” may be true enough, but is it wise?

As a lawyer, trying to craft a legal solution to these problems given the limits of funding and law enforcement resources is only made more difficult when partisans shout across the divide like this. I don’t dispute there are fakes, or that individuals shouldn’t perhaps collect many of the objects they collect. But we will never eradicate the desire of collectors to collect. Are there compromise positions which archaeologists may adopt that would shift this desire in helpful directions? Yes, but insulting those with a different view of material cultural heritage doesn’t get us any closer to any pragmatic solutions.


Paul Barford responds here.  He uses as examples of things which should not be compromised: the collection of wild bird eggs, drink driving, ivory poachers and child abuse.  Unfortunately he doesn’t follow through with any of these analogs, and they strike me as a bit bizarre. 

He states archaeologists should not compromise.  That is one view of course, and it is played out in Mr. Barford’s own blog, which does not allow commenting and has badly distorted many of my positions in the past.  Mr. Barford and I probably don’t disagree on many of the core problems, indeed he probably doesn’t disagree with what many collectors state publicly.  There exists broad consensus that looting of sites is a problem, and should be illegal.  The disagreement arises when we consider the legal measures which should respond.  He seems to take every instance of looting as an indication that “stronger” laws are needed.  But of course he never gives any concrete details.  I’d encourage Mr. Barford to consider the sentiments of Colin Renfrew, which I’ll paraphrase:  in the 30-plus years since the 1970 UNESCO Convention, has there been a decrease in the looting of sites?  Why?  Is it all because of collectors?  Or is it instead the inevitable result of some of these laws and regulations which have created a stronger black market?  What is Mr. Barford’s ideal legal framework?  Despite a primary interest in artifact hunting since the 1990’s, he hasn’t bothered to think about models for future policy as far as I can tell.  I’d be interested to read them. 

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More on Looted Antiquities on Ebay

Mike Boehm has a piece in the LA Times which does a good job following up with Charles Stanish, author of the recent piece in Archaology Magazine discussing looted antiquities on EBay which I discussed earlier here.  Stanish argues that the internet is not quite the haven for looted antiquities some may have feared, but instead a substantial amount of the antiquities for sale online are likely fakes. The piece offers a counter to many of Stanish’s assertions, including:

Usher Lieberman, a spokesperson with Ebay:

“We take very seriously any claims that items sold on the site aren’t genuine. . . . This isn’t something we’re hearing a lot about.”

Oscar White Muscarella, an archaeologist:

“The guy who has money and a lust for antiquities is going to buy them . . .  What’s going to decrease plundering is not forgeries, it’s only if governments take more action.”

Finally, Jerome M. Eisenberg,owner of the Royal Athena Galleries in New York is quoted in the piece:

“[A]nybody with a decent amount of intelligence isn’t going to buy on EBay unless they know who they’re dealing with.”

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334 Antiquities Returned to Peru… but what result?

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection have released a statement announcing the return of 334 objects to the Peruvian government.

Of particular interest is how the objects were seized:

On March 1, 2007, a CBP officer at Houston’s Bush Intercontinental Airport referred Lanas-Ugaz, who had just arrived from Lima, Peru, for a secondary examination. During CBP’s inspection of Lanas-Ugaz’s luggage, officers noted several items in bubble wrap, including a clay figurine of a man in a chair and clay bowls. CBP officers held the five items as possible pre-Columbian Peruvian artifacts, which are protected under the Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act. CBP contacted ICE, which had the artifacts evaluated by archeologists from the American Museum of Natural History. Museum archaeologists confirmed that the items are authentic pre-Columbian and have significant cultural value.
Four days later, ICE, CBP and Laredo Police Department officers executed a federal search warrant at Lanas-Ugaz’s home in Laredo. They discovered many additional authentic artifacts, which included: textiles, ceramic figures, wood sculptures, and metal and stone art. All the items had been illegally exported from Peru into the United States. Lanas-Ugaz, a U.S. citizen, was arrested at his home without incident.

 Lanas-Ugaz reached a plea agreement:

Lanas-Ugaz pleaded guilty May 16, 2007, to one count of knowingly and fraudulently importing into the United States merchandise that is against the law to sell, and receiving stolen goods. On Sept. 13, 2007, he was sentenced to three years probation and a $2,000 fine; he also paid $100 to a crime victims’ fund.

That’s a pretty slight sentence for a crime which carries a maximum punishment of 5 years imprisonment and a $250,000 fine.   One thing the press release does not discuss is why the sentence was so slight, and if Lanas-Ugaz is continuing to trade in antiquities. 

According to the Department of Justice press release in 2007, Lanas-Ugaz operated a website,, which offers Pre-Columbian artifacts for sale.  A simple google search of “perularedo” reveals there is an ebay seller, by that name selling antiquities from Peru, the last sale appeared to be as recently as September 2008. 

One wonders if this antiquities dealer has decided to cooperate?  Has he left the antiquities trade for good?  Is he continuing to sell antiquities under a different name? 

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Map Recovered in Sydney

Another example of the international nature of the cultural property trade: the Sydney Morning Herald is reporting in tomorrow’s edition that this 15th century map by Ptolemy has been recovered after its theft in Spain, shipment to the US, sale on ebay, and eventual purchase and shipment to Australia. I’d imagine that seller will be receiving negative feedback on this transaction. There’s no word yet on whether criminal charges will be filed, or who the seller may have been.

The map, known as the Ulm Ptolemy World Map, illustrates what was then known about the world and is described as “perhaps the most famous and highly sought after of 15th-century world maps, and certainly the most decorative”.
Valued at $160,000 [australian], the Ptolemy map was stolen from Spain’s National Library and made its way to the US, where it was bought on the internet by Simon Dewez, owner of the Gowrie Galleries in Bondi Junction.”I had absolutely no idea it was stolen,” Mr Dewez said yesterday. “I thought it was a fantastic buy, a rare opportunity.” The map has been recovered and is with the Australian Federal Police, who sent photographs to the National Library in Madrid. “They’ve confirmed it’s their missing map,” a spokesman said. “The gallery surrendered it willingly.” Spain will apply to Australia to have the map returned. A legal dispute over ownership is not expected. Mr Dewez declined to name the dealer from whom he bought the map but described him as a reputable dealer who had refunded him. Mr Dewez, whose gallery has a 120-page catalogue offering rare maps for sale, bought the map on behalf of a client as a superannuation investment.

The stolen map was one of 12 maps and other documents cut from a 16th-century edition of Ptolemy’s Geographia, based on the original work by Claudius Ptolemy in the second century. Best known as an astronomer, Ptolemy (AD 85-165) compiled Geographia from existing records and by detailing the geographic co-ordinates of 8000 locations. He was the first to visualise a great southern land mass uniting Africa with Asia and enclosing the modern Indian Ocean.

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National Archives Theft for eBay Sale

An unpaid intern at the National Archives in Philadelphia was charged last week according to Tom Schmidt of the Philadelphia Daily News. He has been charged with stealing 165 Civil War documents and selling them on eBay, which violated 18 USC 641 (theft of government property).

Some of the stolen documents included a letter announcing the death of President Lincoln, along with other letters and telegrams detailing the supply of weapons and other materials to soldiers. He was a volunteer to prepare documents for the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.

The defendant, Denning McTague, holds master’s degrees in History and IT. He had a website called Denning House Antiquarian Books, but it seems to have been taken down since last week. Many of the documents have been recovered, and McTague has been cooperating with authorities.

Sadly, I think this is what a substantial measure of cultural property theft looks like. It happens when curatorial staff and others take parts of a collection which may not be noticed. Susan Cooper, a spokeswoman for the National Archives in Washington D.C. was quoted in a story on PC World that “Since we never sell our documents, and since they [are] all unique, they are all extremely valuable” and this kind of theft is rare. I’m not sure how rare it really is, as institutions certainly do not want to publicize when parts of their collection are gone because of mismanagement. However in this case it seems the National Archives quickly discovered the missing documents, and no serious harm was done.

A copy of the Federal charges are available here.

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