Egypt: the boutique business of looting and smuggling antiquities in conflict

As yet, Scotland Yard’s Art and Antiquities Squad (AAS) don’t know ‘how these objects left Egypt, how the seller came to possess them [or] who his accomplices are’; but they have arrested a ‘UK-based businessman on suspicion of looting‘.

Christie’s auction house’s experts, the British Museum’s Egyptologists, the Egyptian Embassy in London and the Art Loss Register have identified the antiquities, which appear to have been looted from Thebes (at least one from Amenhotep III) since the 2011 Egyptian Revolution; and the Egyptian Ministry of State for Antiquities will petition for the repatriation of the stolen cultural goods.

Even if/though the (seemingly British) businessman had accomplices, if he has been charged with looting (as well as, or as opposed to, illicit export and/or import, or attempted illicit sale), it suggests that he ran (or participated in) a boutique business.

Considering the quantity of looting in Egypt and the quantity of trading and collecting in Britain, there is no way that he/they had the largest Egypt-to-Britain looting/smuggling business. So, whether the recovery of these six antiquities is the ‘largest seiz[ure]’ of Egyptian conflict antiquities in the last two years, or whether the capture of this one arrogantly complacent antiquities trader is ‘one of the biggest operations of its kind’ in the last two years, it’s quite depressing.

Still, particularly in the light of evidence from elsewhere, the case (specifically, the business’s boutique operation) does pose interesting questions:

  1. Have “independent traders” been overlooked in studies of looters and smugglers?
  2. Have “boutique businesses” flourished in certain conflict zones (either long-established ones, where endemic corruption enables a secure, specialist operation; or new ones, where massive instability enables a gold rush-style blitzkrieg)?
  3. If such independent traders exist, do they engage in opportunistic crime for the duration of the conflict; do they ramp up an existing criminal operation for the duration of the conflict but continue it afterwards; or do they move from one vulnerable place to another, “skimming” the cultural resources of wherever offers the lowest-risk opportunity?

I suspect that they have been (and continue to be) overlooked, and that they simply increase their (specialist, national or regional) activities to acquire as much as possible for their existing market when the opportunity arises; but I crave data.

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