MLA Platinum Award Press Release

Trafficking in Antiquities: Background information when reading De Potter's Grand Tour

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De Potter's Grand Tour

by Joanna Scott

De Potter's Grand Tour by Joanna Scott X
De Potter's Grand Tour by Joanna Scott
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2014, 272 pages
    Oct 2015, 272 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Poornima Apte
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About this Book

Trafficking in Antiquities

This article relates to De Potter's Grand Tour

Print Review

In De Potter's Grand Tour, Armand de Potter uses his tourism business as a front to amass a large private collection of illicit antiquities: "You could say that he had become a spy of sorts, on a self-contained mission to gather antiquities instead of secrets, with his travel bureau providing an excuse to visit places that were out of reach for other collectors," Scott writes.

UNESCO logoWhile Armand's collection stems mostly from Egypt, the trade in illicit antiquities spans the globe, including Iraq, Peru, Cambodia, Afghanistan and more. In terms of sheer dollars generated, the business is next only to the trades in drugs and weapons. In 1970, 70 countries signed a UNESCO agreement intended to ban the trafficking of stolen antiquities, but the ban has only been haphazardly enforced.

Banteay ChhamA June 2014 study conducted by experts at the University of Glasgow sheds light into how the looted antiquities travel from the field to the collector. The research focuses in particular on artifacts from the ancient temples of Cambodia; the heist from Banteay Chham temple is considered one of the boldest in the country's history and was unearthed when an archaeological expert came across a piece of the temple facade for sale in Thailand. An article in The National Geographic clarifies points from the study explaining that the criminals close to the ground usually have a fellow looter in charge, someone who controls distribution to a central organizer in a border town. This organizer then moves all goods across the border, in this case, to Thailand. The objects then go to an established dealer in a big city like Bangkok, who sells to private collectors. The steps from the ground to a private collector are not too many, the study reports.

PlaceresEven more disturbing is the link — direct or otherwise — between illicit antiquities and violent insurgents. In hotspots around the world including Iraq and Afghanistan, illicit artifacts are being used to fuel support for terrorism. Mohammed Atta, one of the 9-11 perpetrators, tried to sell looted Afghan antiquities to a German official, claiming he was raising money to buy a plane. The Haqqani terrorist network, affiliated with Al-Qaeda, is known to have collected protection money from traffickers moving stolen goods into Pakistan from Afghanistan. A similar situation has played out in Iraq and Egypt.

Using satellites, images of looting patterns across the globe are being obtained. They strengthen the case for increased protection of precious heritage around the world. A key player in research and enforcement is Trafficking Culture, a project based at the University of Glasgow in Scotland. Funded by the European Research Council, it "aims to produce an evidence-based picture of the contemporary global trade in looted cultural objects."

UNESCO Preventing Antiquities Trafficking Logo, courtesy of 1970 Convention
Photograph of wall of Banteay Chham temple, courtesy of Kiensvay
Photograph of looted stucco facade from the site of Placeres, Mexico, courtesy of Museo Nacional de Antropología

Filed under Society and Politics

Article by Poornima Apte

This "beyond the book article" relates to De Potter's Grand Tour. It originally ran in October 2014 and has been updated for the October 2015 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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