The instability of the Arab Spring has created opportunities for smugglers of antiquities. The west has a responsibility to act
The allegations could have come straight out of an Indiana Jones movie. Three art dealers and a collector have been accused of running an antiquities smuggling ring that illegally shipped Egyptian treasures, including Egyptian sarcophagi, funerary boats and limestone figures over 2,000 years old, to the United States. The relics arrived stateside in innocuous freight boxes, labeled "antiques" and "wooden panels," in order to escape scrutiny.
Declared "one of the largest and most-significant cases of antiquities smuggling in recent memory" by Egypt's minister of antiquities, the case provides a reminder that the "Arab Spring" may have facilitated trade of a treasure trove of stolen assets in the world's art and antiquities markets ? and that increased diligence is needed to ensure that our world's cultural heritage is protected.
In the recent indictment, the US department of justice charged Mousa Khouli, Salem Alshdaifat and Ayman Ramadan, and collector Joseph A Lewis II, with conspiring to smuggle artifacts and conspiring to launder funds. The men are said to have collaborated in disguising and transferring ancient Egyptian artifacts, sidestepping international treaties and domestic customs laws, and abandoning moral restraint.
The case against Khouli and his co-accused draws attention to the global market for looted treasure. Indeed, according to James Hayes Jr, of the US department of homeland security, illegal trafficking of cultural property represents the third most prominent (and profitable) business on the black market. Though such illicit trade is well established, Egyptian artifacts represent a disturbing new and growing market niche.
Earlier this year, the St Louis Art Museum had to answer to US and Egyptian authorities for exhibiting a mask attributed to the Egyptian mummy Ka-Nefer-Nefer. The museum, unable to show a proper chain of custody, since the mask was discovered in 1952, is fighting the US justice department in its attempt to reclaim the mask under domestic customs laws.
In another Egyptian-related case, a British antiques dealer was convicted of smuggling a sculpture of Pharaoh Amenhotep III to the United Kingdom. The dealer listed the figurine as a plastic replica of itself, avoiding investigation from British Customs officials until nearly ten years later.
Khouli and his co-perpetrators are accused of employing a similar method to transfer the Egyptian relics to their US-based buyer: the indictment alleges that the smugglers lied about the place of origin, the value and the contents of the items they imported. Illegal art dealers routinely fabricate the history of ownership, or provenance, of artifacts ? an effective technique to circumvent customs inspections.
The international community and the museum community have both called for improved procedures at the institutional and federal level to prevent such practices. The American Association of Museums encourages museums to obtain and publish adequate provenance documentation, while organisations like the Commission for Looted Art in Europe advise local governments of their treaty obligations and advocate policy reform.
Many domestic governments are doing their part to combat illegal trade, as well. In the United States, for example, specific legislation permits the government to seize artifacts that may have been illegally obtained, while another law makes it a crime to transport, receive or sell suspected stolen goods. In addition, the Washington-sponsored Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art establish comprehensive guidelines to facilitate international cooperation in combating illegal art trading. Egypt, too, revised its laws governing archaeology and the antiquities trade, to protect Egyptian property dating from prehistoric to modern times. All cultural objects originating within Egypt rightfully belong to the state and cannot be exported without consent from the Egyptian government.
Laws and regulations alone, however, are not enough. The plunder of antique relics is a demand-side problem ? and a global one, requiring a global solution. Without the markets for stolen cultural property in Europe and North America, there would be little scope for nefarious attempts at taking advantage of the current instability of cultural treasures in North Africa and the Middle East.
To prevent the plunder of the world's antiquities, the international community needs to act immediately to establish more effective due diligence guidelines for the transfer and sale of cultural property from North Africa and the Middle East, and to devote specific attention to any attempted transfer or sale of cultural property with links to Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Syria. For those who applauded the "Arab Spring", this is is a crucial way of supporting the people behind those movements: only by doing so can we help ensure those countries are not robbed of the very history that provides the cultural foundation for the new governments now formed and forming.