Yesterday U.S. law enforcement officials returned 4,000 object to Mexico. They are the fruit of 11 different investigations in cities like El Paso, San Antonio, Fort Stockton, Phoenix, San Diego, Chicago and Montana. These kinds of ‘art on the table’ news conferences are quite common. But I admit to feeling conflicted about them. On the one hand they certainly speak to the degree of seriousness with which ICE agents and the Federal Government take these crimes. But as with any crime that becomes federalized like this, the incentives are I think primarily geared towards rewarding these big investigations and successful returns. Yet the underlying problems endemic to the antiquities trade itself are not treated or targeted. It is an important step, but also the more of these returns I see (and there are a lot of them) the more frustrating it becomes as well. Because these investigations target the objects. There is no mention of arrests, prosecutions or of much of anything which would produced sustained compliance on the part of the art trade.
In fact after reading the news release I feel more pessimistic about the mass of objects which are being smuggled up from the south. Consider that three statues were smuggled in by a migrant worker on a bus; another clay statue was hidden in luggage in El Paso; another statue was hidden in the dash of a vehicle; a grinding stone was found in another vehicle; another millstone was found in the back of a truck; and the list goes on. These are straightforward and low-cost means to smuggle the objects into the country. We cannot I think expect ICE agents to catch every smuggled object found in luggage, trucks or cars. The trade itself and art buyers need to step up at some point and correct a market which routinely accepts these looted and stolen objects. But that kind of sober reflection on these recoveries is not to be found in the statements of U.S. and Mexican officials. From the ICE news release:
“The plundering of cultural property is one of the oldest forms of organized cross-border crime and has become a worldwide phenomenon that transcends frontiers,” said HSI Assistant Director Janice Ayala. “The teamwork and cooperation that exists between ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations and our Mexican law enforcement counterparts, as well as with U.S. federal, local and state law enforcement agencies made it possible for us to secure these cultural artifacts and to ensure that they are returned to the government of Mexico. HSI will remain committed to combating the looting and trafficking of Mexico’s cultural treasures.”
Consul General of Mexico Jacob Prado stated, “The restitution to Mexico of more than 4,000 archaeological pieces, which were seized by ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations special agents, is proof of the excellent collaboration that exists between Mexico and the United States, and attests to the relevance of the institutions and legal framework that our authorities have developed to successfully address the many different issues of our bilateral agenda.” Consul General Prado also expressed the gratitude of the government and the people of Mexico to the six HSI offices involved in recovering the artifacts, “for their support to ensure the restitution of these archaeological pieces, which are part of the cultural heritage and the historical memory of the people of Mexico.”