Geopolitics of Archaeology: Global Market for Stolen Antiquities

Geopolitics of Archaeology: Global Market for Stolen Antiquities

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Today, we continue our Geopolitics of Archaeology series with a discussion about the market and laws surrounding stolen antiquities.

According to federal authorities, a United States Army helicopter pilot — who was briefly based in Cairo — was charged Wednesday with selling more than 80 stolen Egyptian artifacts to an art dealer in Texas. The items — dating to 3000 B.C. or earlier — were stolen from a museum near Cairo in September 2002.

Chief Warrant Officer Edward George Johnson earned 20,000 dollars from the sale of the antiquities, some of which were resold to galleries in New York. If convicted, Johnson faces up to 15 years in prison.

In another case — The University Museum at Southern Illinois University is completing final details to return a Ptolemaic era bronze cat to the Egyptian consulate’s office in Chicago. Then it goes back to Egypt, where more than 5,000 artifacts have been retrieved through its Supreme Council of Antiquities. The council was established in 2002 to retrieve artifacts illegally smuggled out of the country.

In 2006, the J. Paul Getty Museum and other institutions returned stolen artifacts to Italy. The Getty returns — along with recent FBI raids of museums in Southern California and around the country — have heightened awareness on the part of museums and academic institutions and caused them to think twice about where their antiquities come from.

But some of the world’s most prestigious museums and universities are still slow to revise their policies or return known stolen artifacts.

Neil Brodie is Director of Cultural Heritage Resource at Stanford University’s Archaeology Center and Co-editor of the book Archaeology, Cultural Heritage, and the Antiquities Trade.

And Richard Leventhal is Professor of Anthropology and Curator of the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania. Richard co-edited the book Archaeology in the Mediterranean: The Present State and Future Scope of a Discipline. Neil and Richard are on a crusade to wean museums and academic institutions off stolen antiquities.

The market in stolen antiquities has been going on for a very long time and Jerome asked Neil Brodie if today’s illegal trade wasn’t just an updated form of imperialism…