Germany’s return of conflict antiquities to Kosovo – looting and murder details unknown and withheld

German police have returned seven conflict antiquities to Kosovo. Many of the details of the case are unknown, even to the German police, but others are being withheld. [I think I’ve identified the key unanswered questions in a follow-up post.]

Unknown, unstated, unclear

The illicit possessors are certainly criminals, but it’s unclear whether they were merely the antiquities’ keepers or fences, or whether they were the smugglers or even the looters; it’s unclear whether they were independent traders, members of the Milošević state machine or footsoldiers in allied ultranationalist gangs; it’s even unclear whether the criminals are Serbian Serbs or Kosovan Serbs.

It is unknown how the artefacts were smuggled out of Kosovo and into Germany; there was no documentation for the objects’ origins acquisition origins, export or import; but they were eventually authenticated as genuine and identified as Kosovan.


Some would like to blame German Kosovo Force (KFOR) peacekeepers for the antiquities’ plunder.

However, these antiquities were looted during the war – very probably during the many months of vicious fighting before the arrival of KFOR, very probably not during the few weeks of confusion, community displacement and paramilitary withdrawal after the arrival of peacekeeping forces. The certainty concerning the window of opportunity for the crime might suggest that the criminals were soldiers, but equally it might suggest that they became refugees.

Wartime looting of Kosovo

The Milošević regime stole many archaeological and ethnographic artefacts from Kosovo during the 1998-1999 war, including more than 1,200 from the Museum of Kosovo. These Neolithic, (5,500-6,000-year-old) Vinča-style artefacts were ‘stolen from the Museum of Kosovo in 1999 [1999 aus dem “Museum des Kosovo” gestohlen]’ and ‘smuggled out‘ (still) during the war.

[According to the Hessian Ministry of Science and Art, ‘based on the circumstances and the law, it can be assumed, with an almost certain probability, that the objects come from illegal excavations [Aufgrund der Sach- und Rechtslage ist davon auszugehen, dass die Gegenstände mit an Sicherheit grenzender Wahrscheinlichkeit aus Raubgrabungen stammen]’. (Update: 28th February 2013.)]

[They were (seemingly, separately) ‘smuggled out during the 1998-1999 war with Serbia’. So, Kosovo Culture Minister Krasniqi ‘urg[ed] Belgrade to return’ the ‘more than 1,200 archaeology and ethnology items [taken] from the Kosovo museum’ by the Milošević machine because he had international attention, not because the seven were some of those 1,200. (Update: 5th March 2013; 6th March 2013.)]

These Neolithic, (5,500-6,000-year-old) Vinča-style artefacts were ‘unexpectedly found in a German police raid’ in the historic Höchst district of Frankfurt, during ‘an unrelated investigation against two Serbs several years ago’ (according to the Kosovan Minister of Culture, Youth and Sport, Memli Krasniqi (@MemliKrasniqi), paraphrased by the Agence France-Presse (@AFP) in Auction Central News (@AuctionCentral)).

It’s been reported that German(?) ‘authorities’ believed that the antiquities had been ‘meant for sale to private collectors‘; but it’s unclear whether (they believed that) a definite deal had existed, or whether they simply meant that the possessors were not themselves private collectors and had acquired the antiquities in order to profit from their sale. After all, by the time of the possessors’ arrest, the antiquities had remained (unsold) in Germany for up to seven years.

[Commissioner Laufer said the antiquities were supposed ‘to be traded in Hessen and Bayern, at an artefacts’ market, but after the intervention to stop this criminal activity, these artefacts returned home’. (Update: 6th March 2013 – via @rechtsarche.) Assuming the antiquities were found by accident during the separate murder investigation, then the “intervention” would have been the police’s (diligent) efforts to establish the (il)legality of the possession.]

An unrelated murder

Hessen Police High Commissioner (and ‘looting expert [Raubgrabungsexperte]’) Eckhard Laufer ‘would not give details’ about the original raid, he would only say that it ‘had nothing to with the traffic of cultural heritage‘; but the Associated Press’s Nebi Qena revealed that the artefacts had been found ‘in a sports bag belonging to two Serbs’.

And Hessian Radio (Hessischer Rundfunk (@hronline)) further revealed that the original investigation was a ‘murder case [Mordfall ermittelte]’ from October 2005; but it affirmed that ‘the felony and the archaeological finds had nothing to do with one another [das Kapitalverbrechen und die Fundstücke nichts miteinander zu tun hatten]’. So, the murder was not the result of an antiquities deal gone wrong or infighting amongst the antiquities trafficking team; still, the details of both crimes would hold a grim fascination, and the details of the murder case could still inform our understanding of the antiquities traffickers.

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