Paris (AFP) – An investigation into the widespread trafficking of looted antiquities in the Near and Middle East, which includes a former head of the Louvre Museum, is removing the veil from this illicit trade that has become “huge,” and which has increased since the Arab Spring, according to specialists interviewed. by AFP.
At the heart of this traffic: objects looted from archaeological sites including cemeteries, “real open-air supermarkets” in “warring or politically unstable countries” such as Syria, Iraq or Egypt, but “also in Latin America and Africa”, Vincent Michel, professor of oriental archeology at the University of Poitiers, told AFP.
This expert in combating the illicit trafficking of cultural property describes a “complex chain”: from source countries, through transit countries (Asia, Gulf states, Israel and Lebanon) to destination countries (Anglo-Saxon realms, Europe but increasingly also Russia, Japan, China or the Gulf states) Which includes buyers and many museums or museum projects.
“This movement, which was born from secret excavations and was exacerbated by poverty, has been on the rise since the Arab Spring in 2011”, confirms the specialist, who regularly intervenes with UNESCO. “We can no longer minimize it.”
This topic has made headlines around the world in recent days after the revelation of an investigation into a major antiquities smuggling that brought Jean-Luc Martinez, the former head of the world’s largest museum, the Louvre, to trial.
The Louvre Abu Dhabi and the Louvre Museum announced on Monday that they are taking a civil action in the case.
Secret digs are on the rise
“It is impossible to quantify” precisely, the global antiquities movement will include “tens or even hundreds of millions” of euros.
“The legal art market has an annual turnover of about $63 billion and smugglers are telling themselves there is money to be made,” asserts Mr. Michel, who trains specialists in police, justice and customs.
He warns that this illegal trade “fuels petty crime such as organized crime”.
“It is linked to drug and weapons smuggling, and is part of a multi-form organized crime of money laundering,” which “serves gangs, drug dealers and terrorist groups.”
In Egypt, where a large number of counterfeit products are traded, we went from 1,500 secret excavations annually to 8,960 in 2020, according to the expert.
He noted that the looted works are in excellent condition due to the dry climate, as in Mexico. Thieves use metal detectors in particular to target gold, silver and bronze as a priority.
According to Xavier Delister, regional curator of antiquities at the Regional Directorate for Cultural Affairs in Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, where “the exacerbation of looting of local archaeological sites”, state services are also facing “trafficking of cultural property from abroad”, particularly from Africa and Latin America.
He says these are “artworks with a very high market value that will end up in the free ports.” [sites de stockage où les oeuvres transitent sans être taxées] Appearing again with a false story, then reintegrating it into the legitimate market; Or things of less value that are collectively traded from social networks to online selling sites.”
– ‘Irreversible’ damage to heritage –
Imitators are “incredibly adept at laundering looted items by mixing false and correct information, inventing proportions, or fabricating false export documents or purchase invoices, in order to conceal the illicit origin,” explains Mr. Michael.
Once reintroduced to the legal market, “the looted item is almost undetectable.”
He regrets that “this transnational crime fuels an economy of looting that cares about our national security. It is also an irreversible attack on heritage because something looted, taken out of context, loses all its scientific value.”
The Internet has exacerbated this phenomenon due to “anonymity”, “the proliferation of selling sites”, “countless means of washing” and “the ability of traffickers to adapt”, according to the two experts.
© 2022 AFP