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The Sale of Antiquities

Without proper, notarized documents attesting to the date of importation of antiquities they cannot be legally sold in most countries, including the United States. That being the case, it is the policy of the Center for Bead Research, The Bead Site, The Bead Auction and Bead Expo to forbid such sales.

For information on importing cultural properties to the US go to the government's site on the issue or e-mail them here for specific questions.


  • The problem is worldwide and affects rich nations as well as poor.
  • Prominent individuals and institutions are all too often guilty
  • There is a general crackdown on the situation in many places
  • The looting of archaeological sites to obtain antiquities for sale is destroying the heritage of many countries.
  • Such looting is the worst form of cultural imperialism. It mostly affects developing countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America with rich cultural heritages that lack the resources to police all of their archaeological sites.

When I first alerted the Bead World to this situation in The Endangered Bead in Ornament (1987, 11(1): 64-73) I received a lot of flack. It has been a long struggle, but many people have come around to this point of view.

I still get spurious arguments about it, though. "Everyone does it." "Even museum officials and archaeologists sell antiquities." "We are the guardians of ancient beads" (nonsense; ripped out of context they are dead things).

There is truth to some of these statements. Just because unscrupulous officials are involved doesn't make it right.

"There should be a way for museums to sell off their duplicate beads" (I agree; I proposed this in 1987). "Archaeologists don't pay any attention to beads anyway; we are the ones that publish them." (Only partially true. Beads have become a focus of many archaeological programs around the world in the last few years. Publication is slow, but then it is far more valuable than a bunch of looted beads in a lavish book).

What follows are links and stories on this topic. The first is especially timely, as it has to do with web auctions and stolen property.

Internet auctions get into sticky business of ancient artifacts
by Susan Snyder

 An Internet connection and $1,200 buys you an 1890 Nez Perce necklace made of beads and shells.

An antique Plains Indian beaded doeskin doll goes for about $350, and a rare Sioux eagle feather headdress costs $5,000 -- all available with a credit card and home computer.

Selling American Indian relics isn't new. But now those hoping to get the most from their relics are expanding the buyers' pool with the Internet.

A collector back East has a better chance of finding ancient artifacts from Southwest dealers. And that Easterner will pay top dollar, said Stan Rolf, archaeologist for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in Las Vegas.

"A black and white Anasazi bowl would sell for $20,000 in New York City," Rolf said.

However, if the bowl came from federal land or any Indian burial site it's illegal to own, buy or sell it. That's where Internet sales can get sticky.

Experts say it's hard to tell where the stuff comes from.

Online auction houses and trading posts claim to obtain their relics legally. But old jewelry, clothing, baskets and pots can be found in burial sites, said Gene Hattori, an archaeologist with the Nevada State Museum in Carson City.

"It's portrayed as being legal, but there's a fair amount of potential. It's certainly concerning to professionals that you're increasing the exposure to people who don't know whether it's legal or illegal," Hattori said.

At least 30 web sites hawk American Indian relics and fossils. Paleontologists recently have said they fear even legal Internet sales could inspire illegal excavations.

People have been digging up American Indian artifacts illegally for decades, experts say. A diligent pot-hunter can turn up hundreds of artifacts in just a few years.

The Carson City museum is holding more than 300 items a Utah digger pulled from the mountains and deserts of Utah and Nevada. The man's mother donated the collection to the museum after he died during an illegal dig in 1995.

"There's a book out there that shows the going prices for this stuff, and it's available in bookstores. That's distressing," said Kerry Varley, an archaeologist with the Desert Research Institute in Las Vegas.

The institute, part of the state's university and community college system, is an official curator for artifacts collected on Nevada's federal land.

"Once people collect it they hang it on the wall, and it means absolutely nothing," Varley said. "It takes a big chunk out of our history."

Gary Fogelman, editor of Pennsylvania-based "Indian Artifact Magazine," says the Internet is not the first place he would look for artifacts because there's no telling where things come from.

"It's being bought by a lot of people who don't know what they're buying," Fogelman said. "It's happening in all kinds of hobbies -- wherever anybody can dupe somebody else."

His collector-oriented publication emphasizes finding such items legally, which is easier to do in the East because it doesn't have the vast swaths of federal land found out West.

"There's enough out there" without digging illegally, Fogelman said.

Some items are easily tracked to a specific region or location. Anasazi pottery or old Zuni Indian pieces are found only in the Southwest, he said. Most of those regions are owned by one federal agency or another, so any of those items could be suspect.

But it's tougher to pinpoint origins for flint arrowheads, tools and other items that are common to many tribes or may have been carried long distances, Fogelman said.

Some of it is just plain fake. "There's no way to tell where that stuff comes from," Fogelman said. "There is lots of fraudulent material out there. All that stuff they made for 'Dances With Wolves' is out there now."

Rolf said he spends most of his time protecting panels of ancient rock carvings and paintings scattered over his district's 3.5 million acres. People will chisel off whole panels of rock art.

For collectors, the panels make a nice decoration or bring a good price. But the images hold real meanings for ancestors of the Indians who created them, Rolf said.

"The key to management is sitting down and rolling up your sleeves and getting to know the native peoples so they will tell you (the meanings)," Rolf said. "It takes time. You're trying to overcome 260 years of lies,

deceit and holocaust."

The proliferation of illegal sales has strained the relationship between collectors and archaeologists, Hattori said. Many archaeologists don't want to identify items for collectors anymore.

"The identification is used as verification to increase the (sale) value," he said.

Eugene Tom, chairman of the Moapa Band of Paiutes, said he doesn't understand the industry to begin with. It shouldn't matter whether the relics come from "legal" places.

None should be touched.

"It's not right," Tom said. "How would you like someone to go dig up your father or your grandfather?"

Links and more stories:

Looting in Afghanistan is at an all-time high because of war conditions:

Stone beads and gold jewelry seized from a warehouse in Geneva.

Facing the Crises, an essay by Hester Davis dealing with North America

The Journal of Field Archaeology "Antiquities Market" and related articles index

The crises in Latin America - first section by Erika Wagner

Nagpra : 101st Congress Senate Report , 2d Session 101-473
Providing For The Protection Of Native American Graves And The Repatriation Of Native American Remains And Cultural Patrimony

"Asian Arts in London" sale, especially Ghandharan (Afghan) items.

Archaeological theft remains a major problem in Mexico. Mexican authorities have neither the money nor the manpower to protect or explore all the ancient sites scattered around the country. The National Institute of Anthropology and History has catalogued 28,000 locations--just over 10 percent of the 200,000 sites archaeologists believe exist in Mexico. The quest for tourist dollars, coupled with a newfound interest in keeping antiquities closer to their home temples, has fostered a revamping of Mexico's museum system. Until recently, most important relics were shipped off to the world-renowned National Museum of Anthropology in the nation's capital. Now local authorities have joined the political and financial movement to decentralize the Mexican government and have begun building museums adjacent to ancient city sites and demanding that the best artifacts be housed there.

Telling a professional archaeologist what you have found is not nearly as risky as telling your coworkers or the guys at the bar. It is far better to keep your mouth shut.

The Mystery of the Stolen Artifacts. The case is for you to decide. Review the evidence and then click on the gavel to let us know if you think Mr. Anderson is guilty or not guilty.

Issue 4 of Culture Without Context - Newsletter of the Illicit Antiquities Research Centre

A Historical Perspective on Relic Collecting


Boston (AP) -- Fifteen silver utensils on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York were likely looted from Greek ruins and later smuggled out of Italy, The Boston Globe reported today. Italian authorities have evidence -- including testimony from a man who said his associates found the pieces -- that proves the collection was taken from the ancient site of Morgantina in Sicily, the newspaper reported.

It said Italian authorities have tried for two years to convince Met officials that the goods are stolen. A Met spokesman, Harold Holzer, said "our curators do not buy on the illicit market.''

Giusseppe Mascara reportedly told police his associates unearthed the collection in 1980. The Globe said Mascara described in minute detail an emblem with gold leaf and an image of Scylla, a mythological sea monster. The Met collection has an emblem matching the description.

Italian officials also have U.S. customs documents that show the Met bought the pieces in 1981 and 1982 for $2.7 million through antiquities dealer Robert Hecht Jr. Hecht had previously been barred from Italy for a questionable art deal with the Met involving a 2,500-year-old Greek vase. In both transactions, the Met claimed it bought the pieces from Lebanese dealer Nabil Asfar, who had owned them for decades, the Globe reported.

Hecht, 79, did not deny the silver treasure was looted but said that he was merely a courier for Asfar, and had never looted anything himself. Asfar, who faces charges in London related to selling looted art, could not be located for comment by the newspaper.

A United Nations agreement, signed by the United States in 1972, prohibits looting and trading in looted art. Many museums now avoid buying artifacts if they can't document ownership to before that year. AP-NY-04-17-98 0721EDT


04/16/98 12:09PM Athens, Greece (AP) -- Greek authorities are expanding the probe into suspected antiquity traffickers who were found with nearly 1,000 objects allegedly looted from illegal digs on Greek islands. Police were investigating Thursday whether the two men could have ties to international antiquity theft rings.

After searching the apartments of Dimitris Papadimitriou, a Greek civil engineer, and Dhimitraq Koci, an Albanian police said Wednesday they found 945 artifacts dating back to the 6thcentury B.C. The two men said the objects were part of private collections, but police have charged them with antiquity theft. Among the most valuable artifacts was a clay figurine of a child. Antiquity theft is rife in Greece, which has scores of archaeological sites from the prehistoric Minoan civilization to the Byzantine period that ended in the 15th century.


04/21/98 12:10AM San Antonio (AP) -- A new kind of smuggling is overwhelming U.S. Customs inspectors along Texas' border with Mexico. Ancient relics dating to the Aztec, Maya and other pre-Columbian civilizations are being pillaged, smuggled across the U.S. border and sold in a lucrative market believed to be second only to drug trafficking. At a seminar for Customs inspectors last week in Laredo, archeologists and historians said they fear the smuggling across Latin America is increasing as commerce mounts under the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Overwhelmed Customs inspectors, looking out mostly for drugs or illegal immigrants, are not only unable to check every truck or person coming across, but also don't know what to look for, the San Antonio Express-News reported. "Many of them see these objects come across, but they are uncertain how things should be handled,'' said Thomas Hester, director of the Texas Archeological Research Laboratory at the University of Texas at Austin. "There is a long history of this, but what we are concerned about is the level of illegal smuggling, and to assess whether NAFTA has had any impact,'' he said. "We're not dealing with a nickel-and-dime situation. These things sell for $50,000 to$250,000 apiece. It's a major international scandal that is repeated over and over.''

Hester was one of several experts who held a seminar Monday and Tuesday to educate the public and about 25 Customs inspectors about the fine art of smuggling fine art. Getting national treasures across the border can be easy, depending on the quantity. A person can simply say the funny looking mask in the back seat was bought for a pittance at an outdoor market. Archeologists tried to show Customs inspectors how to know when something is valuable. "We cultivate some expertise in our investigative efforts, but Customs inspectors need that information also,'' said Judy Turner, spokeswoman for Customs in Houston. "It is something they are unfamiliar with. We wanted to train our employees to know what to look for.''

Archeologist say the illegal trade starts with the rampant looting of burial and archeological sites throughout Mexico, Central and South America. Looters can be professional or amateur. It can happen when a poor peasant sells a prehistoric object to a sophisticated buyer for a small price. Buyers can be anyone from private collectors to prestigious auction houses. Folk art sold at markets usually has the "Hecho en Mexico'' -- Made in Mexico -- stamp on the bottom. But these can be faked. It's a problem that has many different levels, officials say, such as counterfeit relics. In Mexico, replicas are crafted with modern tools, then buried for a period of time to make them look like they were just dug up.


Miami Herald

 By Barbara Demick, Knight Ridder Newspapers Babylon -- It was no ordinary theft. The burglars knew exactly what they were looking for and how to get it. They came around noon, as the guards were changing shift. They smashed the museum doors and a display case, absconding with cuneiform tablets and cylinders from the 6th Century B.C. They left behind gold jewelry that might have tempted amateurs. If there is any doubt that Iraq is skidding into a long downward spiral, the proof can be found here in Babylon, one of the oldest cities known.

Opportunistic criminals are taking advantage of the poverty and lawlessness that prevails in today's Iraq to steal that which is most precious to this country -- its glorious past. Quite literally, they are robbing from the cradle of civilization. Babylon today is a forlorn tourist site near the banks of the Euphrates River, 50miles southwest of Baghdad. It is built around the mustard-brick remains of the palace of Nebuchadnezzar II (605-562 B.C.), the Mesopotamian ruler of ancient Babylonia who earned dubious repute in the Bible for conquering Jerusalem and deporting its kings. Although President Saddam Hussein ordered the palace restored a decade ago, few tourists come here anymore, for there is little to see.

All that remains of the statuary and antiquities that once filled the palace grounds is a black basalt lioness, basking alone in the sunshine. The museum is now closed -- a security measure ordered in the aftermath of the April 1996 robbery. Its contents have been moved to Baghdad for safekeeping. "There's nothing to see in there. Just the walls,'' a guide, Rabha Ameedi, said as he shuffled past the padlocked doors of the Babylon Museum.

Muayed Said Damerji, Iraq's director general of antiquities, says the Babylon case remains unsolved. "We can only guess. These cases usually start with a poor, simple peasant or Beduouin, but they are organized by people who know exactly what they're looking for. Eventually, these antiquities will end up in an art gallery in London or New York, but they haven't surfaced yet,'' said Damerji.

Throughout Iraq, museums have been closed in an effort to stop the hemorrhaging of antiquities. Catalogs published in London document 5,000 objects stolen or destroyed since the 1991 Persian Gulf War, and authorities here say there are hundreds of new cases every month. The thieves are highly motivated because the average wage in Iraq, crippled by economic sanctions, is $2 a month. A small tablet or seal with cuneiform writing can fetch up to $2,000 in London or New York.

The thefts are spectacular and violent. At the museum in Nasiriya, in southeastern Iraq near the ancient city of Ur, believed to be the birthplace of the patriarch Abraham, a policeman was injured and a guard killed by gun-toting antiquities thieves. In Khorasbad, in northern Iraq, thieves dressed in military uniforms sealed off a room containing the statue of a massive Assyrian winged bull dating from 700 B.C. They hacked off the head and proceeded to carve it into 11 pieces that they hoped to smuggle out of the country. Ten people were caught and executed last year for their role in the robbery.

Despite such harsh justice, it is almost impossible for Iraq to stop the thefts. There are 10,000 archaeological sites scattered through the country, most of them not fully excavated. According to archaeologists, gang leaders sometimes drive through provincial towns with trucks and shovels, recruiting people to dig for antiquities at poorly guarded sites. "We can't possibly have guards at all these sites and we can't go out and inspect them all,'' Damerji complained. "We used to do it more often. We used to have 500 cars assigned to the department. Now we have only seven and they're always breaking down.''

The looting began in the immediate aftermath of the Gulf War, when 14 of 18 governates, as Iraq's provinces are known, rose in rebellion against the regime of Saddam Hussein. In the Kurdish areas of northern Iraq, and the southern area populated by restless Shiite Muslims, most of the provincial museums were ransacked. The Iraqi government also complained that American soldiers had hacked off pieces of the Ziggurat at Ur. According to Damerji, the U.S. Army confiscated some of the pieces and returned to the Iraqis a box with 19 stolen pieces.

Iraqi authorities charge -- and their accusations are backed up by some archaeologists abroad -- that sometimes antiquities are smuggled out by diplomats and U.N. relief workers. Last summer, a landlord was cleaning a Baghdad villa that had been recently vacated by a diplomat. Inside, he found two cartons of archaeological fragments. The Iraqi government hasn't named the diplomat or his country.

Even when a culprit is identified, or pilfered objects located abroad, it doesn't mean they will be automatically returned. Since 1996, the Iraqi government has been pursuing a lawsuit to recover from a London art gallery Assyrian reliefs stolen from the throne room of a palace in ancient Ninevah. The case appears to be airtight: John Russell, a Columbia University archaeologist and art historian, had photographed the reliefs in 1990 in Nivevah and recognized them when they surfaced on the art market. "We know we'll eventually get these back. We have the evidence,'' Damerji said.

Nicholas Postgate, an archaeologist with Cambridge University and a contributor to Lost Heritage the catalogue of stolen Iraqi antiquities, said archaeologists in the United States and England are trying to help raise awareness of the problem. "The better antiquities dealers won't handle anything that might be stolen, but there are sleazy dealers out there, too,'' Postgate said. "And there is a feeling that when it comes to Iraq, it is fair game. They don't have to feel sorry for the Iraqis.''

At the same time, the Iraqi leader has come under sharp criticism for insensitivity to Iraq's heritage, especially in Babylon. As part of a controversial series of restorations in the late 1980s, new bricks were piled atop the remains of Nebuchadnezzar's palace with inscriptions that read: "In the era of the victorious Saddam Hussein, the protector of greater Iraq and the restorer of its civilization, this city was rebuilt once again.'' Looming above Nebuchadnezzar's palace on a man-made hill called "Saddam Hill'' is a new palace that is supposed to be a private residence for the Iraqi leader. He has never stayed there.

Bead Looters Get Nabbed

Posted 2 October 1997 -- Sources: , Reuters and AP.

During the last week, two instances of looting beads and other artifacts have drawn attention to the strengths and weaknesses of antiquity laws.

In one case, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service announced that Federal agents had seized 155 artifacts ranging from stone tools to elaborate jewelry illegally dug up on the Aleutian island of Shemya, a U.S. Air Force station. They arrested John Wells, who had been digging the items out illegally for three years while working for a subcontractor to the Air Force.

One of the most spectacular artifacts was a "women's figure-eight nose rings, from which beads and feathers dangles." Both federal officials and Aleut groups had been robbed of priceless information.

"What you're getting is the pictures out of this book and you're missing the context," said Fish and Wildlife archaeologist Debra Corbett. "Because of the way they were excavated, we're not going to get much of this story." Although no Aleuts live on Shemya now, their settlement there is believed to date back 3500 years. The looted artifacts could have helped enlighten the story of these people.

So what happened to this miscreant who dug up graves for three years? The artifacts were confiscated, of course, and will go on a travelling expedition. But the labels will be short. And as for Wells, he got a slap-on-the-wrist fine of $500, about what a couple of those earrings with dangling beads would have fetched.

Meanwhile, in Greece 54 golden beads, pendants and brooches in remarkable condition for their 6500 year age, were seized by the police. They arrested two men they had been watching for a year. One was a Greek private detective, Panagiotis Evangelou, 48, and the other a Greek-Canadian, Andreas Bittar. When they left a hotel where they tried to sell the ancient jewelry for $3.5 or $3.6 million, they were apprehended.

The Neolithic ornaments date back to between 4500 and 3200 BC. There had been only 12 such ornaments known in Greece previously of this age, most of it in "King Priam's Treasure" excavated from Troy by Heinrich Schliemann in 1873. This "Treasure" is not in Greece, but elsewhere, having been looted during World War II.

There is no word on the fate of the two men in custody. Reuters said, "In recent years, Greece has cracked down on antiquities smuggling in an attempt to protect its proud heritage." And so it has. We can probably expect a heavy jail term and big fine, likely much more than $500.

Whose ancestry is worth more?


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