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Cooling U.S. Market Sends Tomb Raiders Abroad

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Cooling U.S. Market Sends Tomb Raiders Abroad

Radio Expeditions

Cooling U.S. Market Sends Tomb Raiders Abroad

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Today we follow more of the trail of tomb raiders. We heard yesterday on this program the way that they're destroying archeological sites in Central America. Today we'll follow the loot all the way to New York City. That's one of the places where authorities are going after the buyers of ancient goods, from highbrow galleries to famous museums.

NPR's John Burnett has this NPR/National Geographic Radio Expedition.

JOHN BURNETT: They say the world's second oldest profession is tomb raiding. In the jungles of northern Guatemala, where the lowland Maya 1,500 years ago created stunning jewelry, ceramics and reliefs, there was no one better than Ramon Peralta. He was a huechero, a tomb looter.

Mr. RAMON PERALTA (Guide, Wildlife Conservation Society): (Through translator) If an archaeologist leaves a site, the looters are going to come because they knows it's an interesting site. It doesn't matter where the site is. The looters say, oh, man, that's where the gringos went. There has to be something there.

BURNETT: He's translated by his new boss, Roan McNabb, Guatemala program director for the Wildlife Conservation Society. Like a computer hacker who goes to work for Microsoft, Don Ramon quit looting five years ago and now serves as a guide in the vast Peten Province. He slouches in a chair with a wry smile creasing his copper-colored face.

Mr. PERALTA: (Through translator) This is never going to end, never going to end. Forget it; Peten is huge. And anywhere you go in Peten, you'll find monticulos and ruins and other sites, and it's just always going to continue.

BURNETT: And the reason it will continue not just in Guatemala, but in China, Afghanistan, Cambodia, Nigeria and Mali, to name just a few countries, is because of the demand.

Mr. RICHARD LEVENTHAL (Archaeologist, University of Pennsylvania): I think the connection must be made that the people are looting to look for spectacular objects because there is an art market that will gobble them up and sell them around the world to private dealers and to museums.

BURNETT: That's Richard Leventhal, an archaeologist at the University of Pennsylvania and a leading voice in the movement to curtail the trade in looted antiquities.

The modern world has made the sacking of archaeological sites even easier with containerized shipping, overnight mail, Internet auctions and email. What's more, war and civil conflict leave ancient sites and museums unprotected. In the most vivid example, 14,000 pieces were ransacked from the Iraq Museum. Matthew Bogdanos, a reserve Marine colonel who helped investigate and recover some of the relics, says he was astounded by the global black market he discovered.

Colonel MATTHEW BOGDANOS (U.S. Marine Corps): That includes the smugglers on the first leg of the journey outside of the country, be it Jordan, Egypt or Iraq. That also includes the individuals who provide the false documentation, the provenance, that gets it on its way to a dealer in Beirut, Geneva or Dubai. That includes the dealers, and that ultimately includes the end-user, the collector, individuals whose names you would recognize from society pages.

BURNETT: The looting of the Iraq Museum helped draw attention to the scope of the illegal trade in antiquities. The FBI responded by creating a rapid deployment Art Crime Team. U.S. Customs and Border Protection has begun training its inspectors, though a senior agent guesses they only catch five percent of what's smuggled into the country. Additionally, Washington has signed bilateral agreements with 11 countries that allow it to seize and repatriate stolen antiquities at the border.

But the most effective measure has been targeting the marketplace, says Roger Atwood, a journalist who wrote a book on the subject titled "Stealing History."

Mr. ROGER ATWOOD (Author, "Stealing History"): If we are talking about this as a law enforcement issue, the most sensible way to deal with it is to deal with it at the buyer end, where it's much more concentrated. At the supply end, it's much more diffused and difficult to control.

BURNETT: The buyers — the auction houses, dealers, collectors and museums — have been feeling the pressure, particularly from Italy.

In recent years, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the J. Paul Getty Museum of Art in Los Angeles agreed to return artworks believed stolen from Italian soil. And in the most watched case, prominent art dealer Robert Hecht Jr. and former Getty museum curator Marian True are on trial in Italy for conspiracy to traffic in illegal antiquities. Jim McAndrew is the top art-crime cop with U.S. Customs & Border Protection.

Mr. JIM MCANDREW (U.S. Customs & Border Protection): I think if the Italians are successful against Marion True, I think that would have phenomenal impact on how the large institutions conduct their business, to move this out of the dark ages.

BURNETT: Traditionally, museums have acquired cultural material because it was beautiful or important, with little regard for how it was obtained. Think of the Earl of Elgin hauling the Parthenon Marbles out of Athens in 1806.

Dr. TIMOTHY POTTS (Director, Kimbell Art Museum): There were empires. There were wars. There was booty taken in war. So to the victor often went the spoils, and the museums of the world still represent the disposition of some of those (unintelligible).

BURNETT: Timothy Potts is director of the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth.

Dr. POTTS: We are now living in this different world, and we are requiring more provenance history. And if we suspect that it has been recently - illicitly excavated, we're just not going to buy it.

BURNETT: The key word he uses is provenance — the history of an object's ownership.

Sotheby's, the largest auction house in the world, used to be notorious for buying unprovenanced antiquities, some of which were illegitimate. As evidence of the new chill in the art world, last year, Sotheby's hired as its worldwide director of compliance the former federal art-crime prosecutor in New York.

In this new climate, every relic has to have a paper trail, or it's considered pillage — an assumption that some see as overreacting - hysteria.

Mr. TORKOM DEMIRJIAN (Owner, Ariadne Galleries): My name is Torkom Demirjian. And I'm the president of Ariadne Galleries. We're a very prominent gallery -not because we want to call ourselves prominent because we're very seriously in love with classical antiquities. And we will do everything to promote the protection of classical antiquities.

BURNETT: The Turkish-borne dealer sits in the parlor of his elegant townhouse gallery on the Upper East Side of New York. His left elbow rests casually on a fifth-century Byzantine pillar. Demirjian is tired of dealers and their customers getting blamed for somehow encouraging the destruction of archaeological sites.

Mr. DEMIRJIAN: Oh, Americans like them. They must be somehow evil for liking antiquities. But Americans who buy them, they don't buy these things to destroy or to cause harm. You love something, you protect it. So the issue is, is it good or bad for a work of art to come to America, as opposed to going elsewhere or going nowhere?

BURNETT: The sad reality, says Torkom Demirjian and other experts interviewed for this report, is that the crackdown on illegal antiquities in this country has had an unintended consequence. It has diverted the spoils of tomb raiding from the United States to markets in Europe and Japan, where enforcement remains lax.

For Radio Expeditions, this is John Burnett, NPR News.

INSKEEP: You can hear part one in this series about an archeologist's effort to protect an ancient Mayan city. And you can take a video tour of those ruins at Radio Expeditions has been a co-production of NPR and the National Geographic Society.

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