Peruvian Artifact Trafficking/ Looted Art Auctions

The trafficking of artifacts in the context of this article is referring to artifacts of cultural significance that have been illegally trafficked out of source countries such as Peru, to market states like the United States. This illicit exportation of cultural property results in the illegal sale of these artifacts at international auction houses. This article will outline the major factors that contribute to this illegal trafficking as well as the negative effects that result from it. Additionally this article will address the difficult process of recovering these stolen antiques that source countries face along with possible solutions that can be implemented to reduce the trafficking of these artifacts and the market demand for them.

The contributing factors of this illegal trade are primarily based around a high market value and demand for these artifacts. Simply stated the illegal trade network is estimated to have a net worth of two billion USD. This mass worth has resulted in an increased demand for these pre-Columbian artifacts since 1970. In the recent sale of the Barbier-Mueller collection of pre-Columbian art, a new standard was set for the value of these artifacts. The sale of these artifacts through international auction houses has resulted in astronomically inflate values, that in turn leads to increased looting and the dramatic increase in demand. David Bernstein (a New York dealer specializing in pre-Columbian gold, ceramics and woven textiles) supports this by stating that the woven textile work of the ancient Peruvian Moche society (100-700BC.) is some of the most “highly sought after antiques on the market”. Evidence of this price inflation by auction houses can be seen in the sale of a Chavin (Peruvian society, 200-900BC.) ornamental figure at Caster-Hera in 2012 for 460,000 Euros. These absurdly high values placed upon these artifacts by international auction houses further increase the demand for and values of these antiques which subsequently leads to an increase in illegal trade and trafficking.

The increase in demand for these artifacts is also fuelled by an increased interest from the private collectors. Emma Crichton-Miller quotes Serge Reyen (an expert in pre-Columbian artifacts) and his belief that the reason in part why these artifacts fetch such high values. he states that this is due to “a young generation of European and American collectors who have traveled to Latin America and experienced the culture first hand and want purchase it for themselves.” This greed driven desire and an astonishing amount of money they are willing to create obvious incentive for the increase of looting and artifact trafficking.

Shifting to a more local focus, this incentive of potential lucrative profit can be seen in the rural commercial Haqueros of Northern Peru. These indigenous people see the excavation and sale of these artifacts as an occupation; as simply as a source of income and sustainability.  Kimbra L. Smith does, however, illustrate that these looters are often funded by a larger network of underground traders that supply the demand of the auction houses and the private collectors.  This relationship between illegal traders and auction houses essentially acts as a supply and demand partnership in which the demand outweighs the supply. This in turn forces an increase in illegal looting and trafficking of these cultural artifacts. Using Sotheby’s as an example, the auction house subsequently closed their antique sale in Britain after coming under speculation of direct involvement of the sale of known illegally obtained artifacts.

in the opinion of John Henry Merryman, the restriction of these cultural artifacts by international law (UNESCO 1970)  to museum and government to government trade factors into the increase of illegal trafficking. He argues that by limiting accessibility to these artifacts institutions portray them as fetish objects of value and rarity. Merryman states that this results in an increased private demand and illegal looting and trafficking.

Staffan Lunden’s view on the issue is one that focuses on the inability of these source countries to protect their cultural heritage due to lack of resources. This lack of authoritative presence and response provides a “free” environment for illegal trafficking to occur. Drawing attention to Northern Peru, he uses the pillaged burial tombs of La Mina as an example of the consequences that occur as a result of this lack of legislative enforcement. Lunden also identifies the poverty of the region as a factor causing illegal looting and trafficking. He states that with the drop in the price of cane sugar on the market, locals were forced to find an alternative means of income. In summary, the factors listed above combine to create a volatile environment that nurtures the illegal trafficking of these cultural artifacts.

To generalize the negative impacts this illegal trafficking results in it can be understood that the removal of artifacts from their source country makes it difficult to understand that country’s cultural heritage. Smith states that when these cultural artifacts are illegally removed it becomes increasingly difficult to re-connect them to their original archeological context. This not only deprives the object of its site-specific context, but also  the site of any context that these artifacts may have held. As stated previously by Lunden the looting of archeological sites factors into the regionalized poverty seen in many source countries. He argues that this looting results in a loss of opportunity for sustained income that could have been provided through tourism.

One of the aspects of illegal trafficking that makes it so devastating to cultures is that once the artifacts have been illegally exported out of the country it is essentially impossible to recover them due to lack of documentation. The process by which source countries must undergo to reclaim these object contains several criteria that must be met before the artifact can be returned.

  • The object must be determined to be stolen
  • Proof must be provided that the artifact was found within the modern borders of the country
  • The artifact must be deemed as removed after the implementation of legislation

This difficulty can be clearly exemplified in the case of Peru vs. Johnson in which the Peruvian government was unable to prove the artifacts under investigation originated from within Peru’s borders and, therefore, were not returned

In terms of solutions to this issue, several approaches have been proposed. One suggested cause of action theorized by Merryman, proposes that source countries with an excess of cultural artifacts sell these culturally insignificant  antiques through the public market in turn making them less desired, common objects. Lunden also suggests that the appropriation of these artifacts as tourist attractions would raise awareness and interest in the protection of these antiques, citing the archaeological site of Sipan (Peru) as an example of the effectiveness of tourism.

To summarize, the issue of illegal artifact trafficking and the illegal sale of the artifacts that result from it, it must be understood as an international chain reaction of supply and demand. The demand comes from the first world market, auction houses and private collectors that drive the need for the supply that is facilitated by the illegal trade networks. An increase in this demand by the institutions listed above subsequently results in an increase in the illegal trafficking of these artifacts to fulfill this demand. This supply and demand relationship between the developed world and Latin America can be viewed as another example of North American and European influence on the social, economical and cultural structure of these source countries such as Peru.

Christopher Withenshaw

Works Cited

  • Crichton-Miller, Emma. ” Collector’s Focus: as the market in pre-Columbian art shifts from New York to Paris prices have soared, demonstrated by the record-breaking sale of the Barbier-Mueller collection in March.” Apollo 177, no. 609 (2013): 84.
  • Forrest, Craig. “Strengthening the international regime for the prevention of illicit trade.” Melbourne Journal of International Law 4, no.2  (2003): 592.
  • Hoffman, Mathew R. “Cultural pragmatism: a new approach to the international movement of antiques.” Iowa Law Review 95, no. 2 (2010): 665.
  • Lunden, Staffan. “Perspectives on looting, the illicit antique trade, art, and heritage.” Art Antiquity and Law  17, no. 2 (2012): 109.
  • Massey, Lawrence. “The Antiquity art market: between legality and illegality.” International Journal of Social Economics 35, no. 10 (2008): 729-738.
  • Merryman, John H. ” Cultural Property Internationalism.” International Journal of Cultural Property 12, no. 1 (2005): 11-39
  •  Smith, Kimbra L. “Looting and the politics of archeological knowledge in Northern Peru.” Ethnos 70, no. 2 (2005): 149-170.Crichton-Miller, Emma. ” Collector’s Focus: as the market in pre-Columbian art shifts from New York to Paris prices have soared, demonstrated by the record-breaking sale of the Barbier-Mueller collection in March.” Apollo 177, no. 609 (2013): 84.
This entry was posted in art auctions, art crime, art law, Barbier-Mueller collection, Moche, Peru, Peru vs Johnson, tourism, trafficking, UNESCO. Bookmark the permalink.

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