The Dirty Business of Antiquity (Das schmutzige Geschäft mit der Antike) By Günther Wessel

Book Review

A guest review by archaeologist Jens Notroff (Berlin)

The dirty business of antiquity: the global trade in illicit cultural goods
(Das schmutzige Geschäft mit der Antike. Der globale Handel mit illegalen Kulturgütern)
By Günther Wessel
2015, Links Christoph Verlag (German)

Cover of Wessel 2015This book is not a work of academic discourse. Its author is a journalist and this is certainly reflected in its narrative character, evocative yet critical. A few noticeable redundancies throughout the book may be owed to the text’s past as initial notes for a radio feature on the same topic, but do not detract at all from the reading flow. Through Das schmutzige Geschäft mit der Antike Wessel is aiming to give an overview of and provide access into the often all-too-confusing situation that is the global antiquities trade and the complicated network of politics, economics, and legal frameworks surrounding it. And he is successful in doing so.

This is an important book and it is a necessary one. Of course, being an archaeologist I am biased. But this is not about safeguarding a monopoly on digging up treasures, because archaeology is exactly not about that. It is about documenting contexts. Or, as David Hurst Thomas once put it aptly in an introductory textbook to archaeology: “It’s not what you find, it’s what you find out.” Any excavation, both by archaeologists and by looters, means destruction of the original context. It is an archaeologists’ job to record this context, to document it before it is destroyed. However, looting without proper documentation is irrevocably destroying these traces of the past which could be read by those trained to do so.

Wessel takes the time to dedicate a whole chapter to set straight this picture of archaeology as a scientific discipline beyond treasure hunting, but of course, whether the reader really benefits from this admittedly rather quick ‘tour de force’ through centuries of research history is highly dependent on their overall background. Methods may be treated a bit shallowly and all the accumulated names may be a bit confusing for the lay reader, but then again: this is not meant to be an introduction to archaeology after all. Interestingly, Wessel notes that ‘cultural world heritage’ is very much a prerogative of interpretation from a ‘colonial archaeology’ point of view. While this was undeniably true for a long time in the history of our discipline, it’s thankfully also largely a thing of the past as a lot of strong and excellent national archaeologies and international research cooperations on a par demonstrate impressively.

Wessel’s book is so important because it makes clear that the trade in cultural goods is actually wreaking havoc; that looting and trafficking and, yes, collecting antiquities is more than a trivial offence. While the looting and trafficking of cultural goods is not a new phenomenon at all, it is, due to recent events in conflict-torn Syria, much more of a relevant topic to news coverage and public interest these days. And it is exactly this kind of public awareness which might be our most powerful tool to finally and effectively oppose the constant threat against what is considered ‘world’ (i.e. collectively, thus everyone’s) heritage. A threat rooted as much in political and economical struggle in those modern-day nations harbouring a rich material archive of archaeology and history as it is a direct consequence of collectors’ passion and the booming antiquities market. If we agree that ‘world heritage’ indeed belongs to all humankind, it could hardly be considered a commodity or even private assets.

Apparently, Wessel did his homework and undertook quite a lot of research for this well structured, readable book. He conducted a considerable number of interviews with all kinds of actors involved with antiquities, and he let them all have a say: archaeologists and museum curators, collectors and traders, (former) art smugglers. This way he creates a colourful kaleidoscope, drawing a bow from the politically shaken yet archaeologically incredible rich sands of Egypt, Iraq, and Syria – looted by those desperate to make ends meet and those seeking quick fortune alike – to concealers, dealers, and auctioneers, finally to museums and private collectors. A comprehensive appendix, some handy apparatus listing most recent literature, relevant protagonists, and up-to-date internet resources completes the picture and is a benefit for everyone aiming to delve deeper into the subject beyond Wessel’s reportage.

Beginning with the fundamental question, why we should care for archaeology and heritage at all, the importance and meaning of the past as our collective reference grid for ethical principles and our general concept of ‘culture’, illicit excavations are already identified as the biggest threat to this cultural heritage in the foreword by Markus Hilgert, head of the Vorderasiatisches Museum (Near East Museum) in Berlin. Looting, which is without a shadow of a doubt subsequently caused by the mechanics of the market: demand creating supply. By echoing multiple opinions, Wessel approaches the issue from both ends of the line of argument, showing that looting is no less a problem of national politics (local looting and local middlemen in the country of origin) than it is one of international policy (global trade in protected cultural goods). In particular, he does not conceal that looting and trafficking of antiquities is indeed not only a problem of troubled regions far away, but does take place right on ‘our’ doorstep as well.

In another chapter Wessel addresses the history and present of museums and exhibitions. He gives a fascinating overview about the evolution of these large collections, their origin and some changes of mind regarding the acquisition of certain objects. For it is not a secret (and Wessel illustrates this with a couple of prominent examples) but only recently an openly acknowledged fact that of course museums encourage the antiquities trade, contraband, and certainly looting by obtaining objects of dubious origin. Again, the market—demand and supply—is a crucial point here. Therefore it is surprising (or, on the other hand, maybe it’s not) that almost no market representatives took the chance to answer Wessel’s offer and take up their position. Those few speaking out argued that global antiquities trade does in fact help to protect cultural goods from deprivation and obliteration, somehow over-emphasizing the role of accidental finds (by farming for instance) and marginalizing systematic looting-operations. Whereas their attitude that other ‘common’ artefacts, which exist in greater quantities in the archaeological record, do not have any scientific (but of course a certain economic) value at all is simply shocking.

Wessel does introduce all of these arguments and discusses them with all due diligence. Trade in antiquities recently exported from Syria and Iraq, for example, is strictly prohibited internationally and it is true that no serious dealer would offer any object with such a provenance. However, it is also true that at the same time objects with much more vague source (like “Mesopotamia” for instance) are in fact still offered for sale. This speaks either to some quite amazing carelessness or lack of interest regarding the channels these antiquities are coming from. There is a self-serving declaration often put forward by traders and collectors (which we also find in this book as well of course) that they could hardly know and verify if they are dealing with looted goods in each case – but how else should this be answered than with common sense? If in doubt, simply don’t buy it! But in the current state of affairs, the antiquities trade is fueling structures of organized crime not unlike the illegal narcotics and arms smuggle and trade. In the end it is even potentially indirectly supporting terrorist activity funded by income generated through the trade in cultural goods. Admittedly, this correlation is not yet backed sufficiently by reliable proof (as antiquities trade representatives point out continuously and as is of course acknowledged by Wessel too), but it nevertheless must be considered a likely scenario at least.

That a chain of causation can be drawn from looting and destroying archaeological sites to buyers and collectors, and that the international art market is an essential link in this chain is the topic of another chapter in Wessel’s book. Consulting and comparing auction catalogues, he discusses a number of cases illustrating how repeated transactions between dealers and collectors actually help to create provenances for some of those objects lacking a proper background and that even museums are authorizing and contributing to those legends of origin by accepting items on loan without asking provenance questions hypercritically. Yet even more disturbing is that even armamentarium intended to protect objects of art like the ‘Art Loss Register’ for example can work against antiquities. The ALR is a register listing missing works of art to help identify those when they come onto the market. Antiquities stemming from illegal excavations by their very nature cannot be part of such a registry; a corresponding enquiry therefore can only result in a negative answer (‘not listed as stolen art‘) and a certificate may be issued by the ALR confirming exactly this. Again those who buy these objects are the lynchpin of the whole problem: their demand is creating a supply, and they also have to accept these legends of provenance. Such bona fide transactions (‘in good faith’) release buyers from any legal obligation (i.e. to verify the commodities’ origin) in some jurisdictions, but completely bypass a whole series of moral questions. Even if it would be legal to buy certain antiquities, would it be justifiable to turn cultural world heritage into productive investment and withdraw it into private property?

Not to mention that the very same demand creates a whole other, not less problematic supply. If there just are not enough antiquities to satisfy the market in time, they are ‘produced’ to accommodate these needs. According to figures and experts Wessel consulted for his book, up to 60% of the objects flooding the antiquities market may be forgeries. One thing is clear: there just are not two separated antiquities markets, a clean ‘white’ and a shady ‘black’ one operating independently of each other. There is just one big ‘grey’ market. Or, as Oscar White Muscarella (a strict critic of the antiquities trade and former staff member of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York) worded rather belligerently in Wessel’s book: “Each antiquity on the market is either looted or forged.”

In its very last chapter about “Legal and political endeavours as well as failures in the trade with cultural assets”, Wessel’s book develops a topicality by focussing on the role of Germany as a terminal for the international trade in antiquities. It was only in 2007 that the 1970 UNESCO convention was finally enshrined in national law here in Germany (coming into effect in 2008). The result being a rather watered-down bill after years of negotiation with a noticeable concern for the art market. The ineffectiveness of this law was proven, as Wessel notes, in a government report from 2013, stating that not a single object could have been secured and repatriated on the basis of the law. Therefore a revision of this national cultural property protection bill, as is currently in the works, is a necessary and long overdue step into the right direction.

This revision has stirred up quite a heated discussion in the German art and media scene and turned out to be a disputed topic. Unfortunately this dispute has been all too often based on insufficient background knowledge or even misleading information regarding the illicit trade in cultural goods and its threat to world heritage. I wish more of those involved in public discussions of the proposed law would have spent time researching the mechanics working on this trade to bring this debate onto a more solid ground.

Of course, now that Günther Wessel has gone through this effort, it would not take much more than reading his book, something I would highly recommend anyway. We not only need a public discussion, but a public campaign even to ostracize the trade in antiquities. Michael Müller-Karpe from the Römisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum (Romano-Germanic Central Museum) in Mainz found drastic words to illustrate the situation (Müller-Karpe was actually sued for this statement):

He who buys antiquities of unclear origin does not only support destruction of culture due to sponsoring illicit excavations. He also has to realize that a lot of those antiquities offered on the market have blood on them

Günther Wessel’s book is a good start to spread this word.