Antiques smuggled from dig sites lose their history and with it much of their value
Seattle Times art critic
For archaeologists and scholars, the smuggling of genuine artifacts has more serious consequences than the trade in fakes.
When an artwork is stolen from an archaeological site and sold outside the country, experts have no way to trace the history of the piece; its link to the past is lost. For museums and collectors, an object with a provenance — a record of where it was found and who previously owned it — is worth much more.
The worldwide market for antiquities has ignited in the past 20 years. The black market for looted artifacts is estimated to be worth billions of dollars, according to The Illicit Antiquities Research Centre at the University of Cambridge, England, which links the growing business to organized crime.
The fact that Chinese government officials occasionally crack down hard on smugglers "should not obscure the fact that they have largely tolerated the illegal export of art objects," according to The Art Newspaper, which criticizes corrupt government officials for facilitating the trade.
Smugglers routinely decimate temples and archaeological sites in countries without the resources to protect their cultural heritage. Collectors in North America, Europe and Japan eagerly buy up the spoils.
China Daily said recently, "Most Chinese grave-robbers' loot usually ends up in expensively decorated living rooms on New York's Upper East Side."
Collectors argue that they protect treasures that might otherwise go uncared for.