The Big Business of Stolen Culture


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N1: The reason why Matthew BogDANos travels and lectures - passionately and insistently - is to make people understand the importance of our shared cultural heritage.

A1 (BOGDANOS): This isn't just alabaster with funny writing on it, that it matters. That it resonates with a language and a vocabulary that we can't possible begin to understand.

N2: But let's say this doesn't resonate, that to some people it IS nothing but clay pots with funny writing on it, and they can't comprehend why he's so up in arms about the whole thing. Then he'll give you a better reason.

Because, Bogdanos says, the trafficking in illegal antiquities is funding the Iraqi insurgency.

A2 (BOGDANOS): The people that are murdering the men women and children in the streets are using the sale of antiquities to finance their operations. (8s)

N3: Bogdanos is an assistant District Attorney, classical scholar, and a colonel in the US Marine Corps. His book, Thieves of Baghdad, tells the tragic tale of the Iraq museum that was looted to near-emptiness in 2003. The museum housed some of the oldest and most exquisite treasures of the ancient world. Bogdanos calls it a tragedy of Homeric proportions. His fury over the plunder is not unusual. An entire organization sprang up around it. It is called SAFE - Saving Antiquities For Everyone. Cindy Ho is its founder.

A3: (HO): I felt, for a country that has been invaded how sad is it that the Iraqis are going to lose the one thing that they could hold onto, which is their cultural heritage (16s)

N4: Ho created SAFE to raise awareness about the widespread extent of stolen cultural artifacts. But she soon found out that some people didn't want any awareness to be raised.

A4: (HO): There were some skepticism, and even suspicion about who I am, why am I doing this? There are people who would not welcome an organization such as SAFE because we're basically exposing an illicit activity. (16s)

N5: But Ho didn't give up. In fact, she dug further, and quickly learned what BogDANos had seen first-hand in Iraq - that the antiquities trade is highly profitable, shrouded in secrecy and ubiquitous. Items stolen from the Iraq museum were already beginning to appear on the market, along with artifacts pillaged from sites in Afghanistan, Turkey, and Cambodia. They were without papers, and selling for big bucks. One Iraqi cylinder seal - used as a stamp in 3500 BC - sold for a quarter of a million dollars.

SAFE went to government hearings to try to stop more of this from happening. But museums directors, dealers, and collectors were there, too. Members of SAFE found themselves outnumbered, and their presence unwanted.

A5 (HO): There were a lot of people who were against it. I think a lot of people felt threatened that this is going to mean they have to close their dealership. This is big business. (12s)

N6: How big? The F-B-I - with its specially designated Art Crime Team - estimates art theft to be a 6 billion dollar a year enterprise. And the world's largest police organization, Interpol, reports that the amount of money in illicit antiquities trafficking rivals the cash flow of the weapons and drug trades.

William Pearlstein is the former treasurer of the American Council for Cultural Policy. He says the scale of worldwide archeological looting is exaggerated.

A6 (PEARLSTEIN): You know, you hear these bombastic statements from the American enforcement agencies and the archeological advocates…well, guess what? Most of that happens to be French country furniture, or wicker work. Stolen patio furniture from the Door Store qualifies. (19s)

N7: Pearlstein is also an arts and antiques lawyer, who represents the National Association of Dealers in Ancient, Oriental and Primitive Art. He says including garden-variety art theft skews numbers of bona fide archeological looting, and confuses the public.

A7 (PEARLSTEIN): This topic - the antiquities trade - evokes strong emotions from people, and people tend to get heated up very quickly on the basis of misinformation or little information. (15s)

N8: It's difficult to be precise when dealing with such an underground operation. Looters rarely admit to stealing, and documents of authenticity are oftentimes forged. Buying and selling stolen artifacts is a problem centuries old. And the solution may still be a long way away. But for Cindy Ho, it's worth the effort.

N8 (HO): Antiquities tell stories of about where we came from, how our ancestors lived, what they did. It's really the story of all our lives. And to me, that's the core of who we are. (14s)

A9: As museums across the globe grapple with what to do with items of questionable origins in their collections, the Iraq museum continues to recover its stolen pieces. It is slowly restoring its ancient objects, and its faith in humanity.

Megan Hauser, Columbia Radio News