Germany’s return of conflict antiquities to Kosovo: unanswered questions

I have updated my review of Germany’s return of conflict antiquities to Kosovo, but there hasn’t been much to update; the details of the antiquities looting-and-smuggling and the murder are still either unknown or being withheld. In order to reduce cultural property crime, we need to know not only who did it but how they did it (or intended to do it). I think there are four key questions: Why is so little information known? Who were the illicit possessors of the antiquities? How did the criminals conduct the operation? How were they caught?

Why is so little information known? Or, why is so much information being withheld?

It’s highly improbable that quite so little information is known about the criminals, their activities in general and/or these cases in particular, especially years after the apparent resolution of the (publicly-identified) cases. It’s certain that some information is being withheld; it’s probable that a lot of information is being held back; and it’s unlikely that quite so much information is being held back simply to protect the privacy of the people involved.

It seems likely that at least some information is being withheld due to “ongoing investigations“, for “operational reasons“. In other words, releasing information might jeopardise future prosecutions. Withholding information might help to avoid tipping off suspects under investigation, to prove suspects’ guilty knowledge of or participation in a crime, or to disprove false confessors’ guilt.

Who were the illicit possessors of the looted antiquities?

Their names and nationalities (beyond ethnicities) are not (immediately) important; however, even their roles are unknown. Were they keepers who stashed antiquities (and other commodities), dealers who traded antiquities (or fences who sold any illicit goods), smugglers who exported/imported antiquities (and other commodities), or looters who illicitly excavated antiquities? Were they independent traders who operated a production-and-supply line of illicit antiquities, associates or members of “apolitical” (not-primarily-extremist) organised criminals, fighters from ultranationalist gangs, or figures from the Milošević regime?

How did the criminals conduct the operation? And how did they intend to complete it?

How were the objects smuggled out of Kosovo and into Germany? Were they smuggled overland through four-to-six countries? Were they smuggled over land and (Adriatic) sea (and land again)? Were they simply taken on a commercial flight as baggage/cargo, or sent through the post (or a courier service) as mail?

Did the illicit possessors have a sales contract (sometime); did they expect to be able to make a “cold-call”, “walk-up”, “door-stepping” sale to an antiquities dealer; or did they intend to keep the antiquities as currency/savings/collateral? If the cultural goods were kept as currency/savings/collateral, was part of their appeal that their possessors would be able to sell them, but that less-knowledgeable others who found them (for example, in the process of robbing or intimidating the suspects) might ignorantly dismiss them?

[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 an unrelated murder investigation, the “intervention” would have been the police’s (diligent) efforts to establish the (il)legality of the possession; but it is possible that the story is more complicated.

More importantly, this detail poses more questions than it answers. Were they market traders? Did they intend to rent a market stall specifically for this sale? Was the “market” an auction? Did they intend to sell the antiquities to or through an established trader? If they were the end-of-the-line salesmen, who’d had the antiquities, and where had the antiquities been, until the salesmen received them? If they’d held the antiquities for a significant period of time, why hadn’t they sold the objects before, and why were they going to sell the objects then?]

How were they caught?

So little is known that few questions are possible, and fewer answers are expected. Was the sports bag of swag found in a suspect’s hand, in a vehicle, in a residential property or in commercial premises? What was the motive of the unrelated murder? Were the suspects in the antiquities crime(s) also suspects in the murder investigation, were they otherwise complicit in the murder, or were they witnesses to the murder?

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