The exact nature of the illicit antiquities trade from ground to market in Southeast Asia remains poorly known outside of Thailand and Cambodia, where most research has been focused. This paper helps to address this imbalance by documenting and contextualizing looting activities at the Bronze and Iron Age site of Vườn Chuối, located within urban Hanoi. A brief excavation history is provided so as to place recent looting into archaeological context. The methods used to document the recent and on-going looting observed are then discussed, followed by the nature of the current threat to Vườn Chuôi and a summation of what little is known about the Vietnamese antiquities trade in general and its relationship to regional antiquities trafficking. Finally, we discuss the current regulatory landscape in terms of constitutional, ownership, penal and international law, difficulties with enforcement and prosecution, and what course of action is needed not only to protect Vườn Chuôi and similar sites in and around Hanoi, but also to continue to raise public awareness of the archaeological repercussions of the trade itself.
In 2008 a massive federal investigation unfolded in a coordinated series of searches that produced dramatic images of federal agents standing outside prominent Southern California Museums. As Jason Felch points out:
The investigation sent shockwaves through the art world, suggesting that even amid an international scandal over the Getty Museum’s role in looting, other local museums had continued to do business with the black market. Some critics later called the raids over-zealous, noting that despite that the massive investigation, the government had failed to win jail time in the long-delayed criminal trials that followed.
The museums which were targets of the search included the Los Angles County Museum of Art, Pasadena’s Pacific Asia Museum, the Bowers Museum, and the Mingei Museum in San Diego. One of the antiquities dealers responsible for facilitating moving material from Southeast Asia to the United States was Jonathan Markell. This week he was sentenced to 18 months in prison. An extremely rare occurrence. Markell and his wife Cari were both sentenced this week. They were ordered to return hundreds of objects seized from their gallery, and were ordered to pay the shipping costs and tax penalties. So at long last a successful prosecution in these raids, which at the time in 2008 seemed destined to produce a number of prosecutions and fundamental changes.
Rick St. Hilaire this week heaped praise on the prosecutors and investigators:
In the annals of cultural property law, prosecutions targeting transnational antiquities trafficking networks are rare. Even more rare are felony convictions. Scarcer too are prison sentences. . . . So what happened this week to a pair of California gallery owners tied in with the “Museum Raids” cases is a momentous achievement, an example of careful and intelligent case development by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Central District of California, resulting in felony convictions for antiquities traffickers rather than a “seize and send” photo-op that cultural property watchers are accustomed to witnessing.
Whatever you think of the antiquities trade will probably dictate whether you agree with St. Hilaire or not. But this is one of the exceedingly rare prosecutions of an actor in a transnational antiquities network.