Posts Tagged ‘art theft’

Re: The Trade in Cultural History

February 8, 2009

Reuters reports that a book recovered from a raid on alleged antiquities smugglers in Cyprus may be a 1,000 to 2,000 year old bible. The object is described as a vellum manuscript, loosely bound together. Pages include a drawing of a palm tree and lines of gold text in Syriac script. Experts are divided about whether the object is authentic or not, but the story serves to highlight the continuing discovery of unknown cultural objects and the existence of the illegal antiquities trade.

Last week the Times reported in a brief note that the trial of Marion True, a former curator for the Getty Museum in Los Angles, and Robert Hecht, an American art dealer, resumed in Italy.  Ms. True and Mr. Hecht are accused of conspiring to export looted Italian antiquities. If they are in fact guilty, Marion True and Robert Hecht represent one point in the illegal trade network, whereas the individuals found with the Cypriot book represent the mid-point in the journey of an illegally excavated and exported cultural object. At the root of the process are those who accidentally find objects or purposefully search out and illegally excavate objects, destroying archeological sites in the process. In countries that have cultural objects of high desirability in the market, the monetary rewards for making an illegal sale drives the business along with an individual disregard for the importance of such objects to the culture itself.

Similar to Italy, Cyprus likewise vests ownership of antiquities in the government. The Antiquities Law of Cyprus states that all such objects discovered after the effective date of the law are the property of the government of Cyprus and all accidental findings (by those unlicensed to perform excavations) must be reported to the appropriate government agent.

Regardless of someone’s position on the disputed ownership of certain famous antiquities, it can be recognized that the illicit trade in cultural objects inflames emotions and hampers the present legal framework for resolving disputes. The illegal status of the business and the extreme monetary value of the objects encourages a covetous perspective that sustains the trade, along with generally promoting a materialistic approach to the objects themselves. As stated in the Reuters report, the Cypriot book, if authentic, is “priceless” and one can only guess at the private selling price of such an object. In this case it appears that the transaction was prevented, but an unknown number of such operations likely succeed every year, in all corners of the world–including the United States–taking an untold number of culturally significant objects away from both the public and the possibility of scientific and cultural study.

Image of the Syriac manuscript

Antiquities Laws of Cyrus (Republic of Cypus, Department of Antiquities), an English language version is available.