Black-market trade in antiquities is destroying some countries' heritage. Anne Sebba reports on battles by archaeologists to stop the looting
James Ede, a London-based antiquities dealer, put two beautiful Athenian red-figure vases on his desk and asked me an impossible question. Which had been found more recently?
"The dirtier one, slightly cracked, is 4th century BC, came out in the 19th century and was owned by a Greek family that has lived in London since before the second world war," he told me.
"The grandfather bought it and that is the end of the chain. The newer looking, shiny one, 5th century BC, has been owned by an English aristocratic family for generations. They now need the money."
Ede, a dealer with Charles Ede Ltd and chairman of the International Association of Dealers in Ancient Art, admits that he cannot know any of this for sure: "But I am not prepared to accept that objects should be declared stolen simply because you cannot prove their pedigree."
His views are not shared by most of the world's archaeologists, who feel more work to establish antiquities' provenance will help stem the growing illegal trade in art. They are engaged in a fierce struggle to persuade governments - including Britain - to ratify the 1970 Unesco convention, which aims to control the trade in antiquities and provide a way for governments to cooperate to recover cultural objects that have been stolen and moved illegally across national frontiers. It is supported by the 1995 Unidroit convention on stolen or illegally exported cultural objects.
A conference of the European Archaeological Association at Bournemouth University has just produced a unanimous proposal asking the ministers of culture in their respective governments to make clear when they intend to ratify these conventions. While the United States signed the Unesco convention in 1983, Britain, the Netherlands, Germany and Belgium are among those still to comply.
Europe is one of the major markets for the trade in material looted from archaeological sites around the world. The archaeological community is increasingly alarmed as the illegal excavation of antiquities has led to widespread destruction, threatening many countries' heritage. According to Neil Brodie, who edits the newsletter Culture without Context, published by the Cambridge-based Illicit Antiquities Research Centre: "Although a large part of the antiquities trade might be illegal, the big problem is that there are no facts and figures. More is known about the drugs trade."
Brodie says about 85 per cent of antiquities appearing in salesrooms or in collections have no provenance. But all this means is that somewhere between 0 and 85 per cent of antiquities in circulation were acquired illegally, which is not very helpful.
"There has been looting of Greek, Italian and Egyptian pots going on for centuries. But now there is an explosion and in areas not particularly well known from an archaeological point of view, such as South and Central America, sub-Saharan Africa, Central and Southeast Asia. The situation is especially scandalous in Cambodia where the mutilation of temples is rife and the lopped off fragments usually end up on the western market."
Also seriously affected is Iraq, where economic ruin following the Gulf war has left many sites unguarded. Poverty-stricken Iraqi looters have plundered the ancient city of Ninevah to sell artefacts on to western collectors.
Kathryn Tubb, a lecturer in University College London's Institute of Archaeology, says: "From an archaeological point of view, there is as much damage to a site whether you remove an unspectacular oil lamp or a priceless marble sculpture. The context of the find is what we use to build a picture of the past and of how people lived."
What Tubb finds frightening is the market hype that has allowed archaeological material to be reduced to a commodity - the idea that anyone can own a piece of the past. That is fuelling the black-market trade. A recent article in The New Yorker estimated the worldwide black-market trade in art to be worth between $2 billion and $6 billion a year, the fourth largest criminal enterprise after drugs, arms and money laundering.
Such figures have started to worry dealers, according to Lord Renfrew, Disney professor of archaeology at Cambridge and director of the IARC. "Dealers are beginning to be more concerned about selling unprovenanced antiquities because of allegations that their trade is being used for money laundering," he says. "They don't want to be associated with that. The art trade earns lots of money for the UK, mostly very creditably, and the auction houses are beginning to realise that it is only antiquities that bring them into disrepute."
Sotheby's no longer sells antiquities in the UK and many scholars will no longer write catalogue entries for antiquities sales at the other auction houses. Lord Renfrew believes the tide is turning. He set up the IARC in May 1996 in an attempt to focus public and academic opinion on the enormous increase in illicit trading. Part of the incentive was what he termed "the effrontery" of the Royal Academy in 1994 when it staged the George Ortiz private collection of some 200 antiquities, called "In pursuit of the absolute: art of the ancient world".
"This made one feel this can't go on unchecked when people start to preen themselves in public for owning and exhibiting unprovenanced antiquities," he says.
He has for some years led attempts to persuade the British government to take action and a government spokesman promised him a reply by June to his parliamentary question about the Unesco convention. However, the official response this week was still: "We are consulting with other departments and hope to have a decision soon."
Arts minister Alan Howarth, addressing Labour's recent conference in Bournemouth, made great play of his government's achievement in introducing the portable antiquities bill. Peter Addyman, director of the York Archaeological Trust, says this has been a big success, with thousands of objects discovered by metal detectorists being recorded. "But it doesn't stop them doing it," he says. "Our concern is to preserve the stratified archaeological sites so that we can excavate properly."
Lord Renfrew says it will be a scandal if the British government does not ratify the Unesco convention. "We're talking of a finite resource here. The sites being destroyed are irreplaceable - for example, the prehistory of Mali is being looted out of the ground. That's not just a loss for Mali, it's a problem of world history. We're all losing that."