illicit antiquities trading in Nigeria: boutique smuggling, cultural racketeering or state crime?

Having looked at some of the harms that are caused by illicit business, and some of the evidence for the structure of the illicit oil trade in Nigeria, now I want to look at how the illicit antiquities trade could function in Nigeria.

Cultural racketeering

George Washington University’s Capitol Archaeological Institute was established ‘to work with the local communities in countries in crisis – as well as the governments – to build capacity against the organized looting‘ (including through the conduct of ethical/sustainable cultural heritage work). It has adopted the term ‘cultural racketeering‘ for organized criminal trafficking of illicit art and antiquities.(fn1)

As the Institute’s co-founder and chairperson, Deborah Lehr, observes, ‘[m]any’ of the countries subjected to cultural racketeering ‘are in crisis, whether economic, political or humanitarian‘ (as I’ve highlighted in Nigeria, Mali, Egypt, Syria and elsewhere). That’s why so many of the people engaged in antiquities looting are poverty-stricken villagers.

Yet organized distribution networks – many linked to organized criminal networks engaged in other types of black activities – act as middlemen to smuggle these artifacts out of the country to where demand exists….

As well as ‘conducting additional research to identify the leaders in these [trafficking] networks’, the Institute is ‘leading an initiative to raise the profile [of] cultural racketeering’. Alongside their colleagues in this endeavour, they ‘encourage people’

to think about what they can do to protect heritage in their own communities, to stop purchasing artifacts with unclear provenance [while CUNY’s art crime professor Erin Thompson pleads with collectors ‘simply not to buy antiquities, particularly from Syria’ or other conflict zones], and to support cultural entrepreneurship [as do the Sustainable Preservation Initiative (SPI) and others], which helps build capacity to protect archaeological sites in countries under attack from cultural racketeering.

Does opportunity ferment bad apples in the state?

The standard understanding of the Nigerian trade, presented in scholarly research, professional reports and investigative journalism, appears to be that it is basically a disorganised crime.

Sometimes, independent diggers supply independent traders, who supply independent dealers (who operate out of national tourist markets and international commodity warehouses). Sometimes, local or foreign collecting-dealing rings employ local digging teams, and specialist dealers supply museums, galleries and collectors. Whenever necessary to complete their stage in the process, criminals bribe “gatekeeper” officials to provide “mining” accreditation, approve export licences, turn a blind eye, do whatever.

Occasionally, museums’ armed robbers use deadly violence. And there is concern that,

Due to the international art market’s steadily growing interest in African art and the premium prices obtained for Nok culture terracottas [figurines/statuettes], dealers have increasingly organised illegal searches, excavations and ultimately sales of figurines abroad.

[Aufgrund des stetig wachsenden Interesses des internationalen Kunstmarkts an afrikanischer Kunst und der erzielten Spitzenpreise für die Terrakotten der Nok-Kultur haben Händler zunehmend das illegale Aufspüren, Ausgraben und schließlich den Verkauf der Figuren ins Ausland organisiert.]

(via Portable Antiquity Collecting and Heritage Issues and Kunstpedia)

But generally there is little mention of theft and/or smuggling syndicates. Nevertheless, the plunder is ‘organized and systematic‘ and single heists can be worth millions of dollars.

Do criminal organisations conduct their operations through state structures?

If key actors in illicit oil networks are not merely thugs-for-hire and corruptible officials, but armed groups, military units and political power-brokers, are such organised criminals also key actors in illicit antiquities networks? Certainly, there are army generals who manage artefact-mining operations, and there are ‘network[s]… specialised in the import and export of drugs… and of cultural properties [rete… specializzati nella tratta di connazionali e nell’esportazione di droga… e di beni culturali]’…

If oil thieves are closed down by state forces for not paying protection money, are antiquities thieves closed down for the same reason? Certainly, some looting groups have been closed down while others have managed to continue and expand their strip-mining of archaeological sites…

Why wouldn’t they?

Very basically, if criminal actors with state power or extrajudicial force are involved in illicit antiquities trading, and if criminal structures with state power or extrajudicial force conduct or regulate illicit oil trading, why would those structures not conduct or regulate illicit antiquities trading?

Perhaps local policing and border control are so weak that gangs are not essential for the protection of looters and traffickers, so the illicit antiquities trade simply functions like an unregulated market (albeit one that pays “taxes” in the form of bribes).

However, the networks that traffic other commodities have penetrated law enforcement agencies very deeply; they have access to state power as well as extrajudicial force. It seems like their apparent non-involvement in the trafficking of antiquities would require a conscious decision not to indulge in a high-profit, low-challenge, low-risk enterprise…

Much looting in remote locations could be conducted without state (or organised criminal) interference (or with the payment of occasional bribes). And some boutique “hand-smuggling” supply lines could operate. But are lots of high-value (illicit) commodities leaving the country without either state or organised criminal intervention? Are state forces and organised criminals missing something? Or are academics and journalists missing something?

How much of the trade in illicit Nigerian antiquities is a trade in counterfeit Nigerian antiquities?

There is also a counterfeiting economy, where legal handicraft products become illegal counterfeit antiquities, become faked/forged, only when they receive false/forged authentication or are otherwise presented as genuine antiquities on the ostensibly legal (and overwhelmingly international) market, when they are beyond the reach of Nigerian authorities and organised criminals.

Indeed, (after and despite widespread looting in the 1970s) Daybreak Archaeometry Services judged that ‘[v]irtually all’ of the most desirable Nigerian objects on the market were ‘easily discernable fakes‘ until, in the 1990s, a ‘consortium of European dealers… organized systematic clandestine excavation’. In Nigeria, then (for a while at least), the supply of looted antiquities saturated the market for counterfeit antiquities and made counterfeit production collapse.

Is the scarce reporting of cultural racketeering in Nigeria (partly) because the ostensibly authentic (looted) Nigerian antiquities market is once more (or still) flooded with forged artefacts?


fn1: While it might be deemed unnecessary (alongside mouthfuls such as “organised crime in the illicit antiquities trade”, “organised crime in art and antiquities”, “organised cultural property crime”…), it does handily capture the grim reality of an enterprise that is sometimes perceived as a victimless crime or even a gentlemanly adventure. It should ease communication with policy-makers and the public to be able to discuss illegal antiquities trading, cultural racketeering and blood antiques trading/conflict antiquities trading.

Like natural resources, cultural resources are not necessarily illicit commodities; licit antiquities become illicit through illegal excavation, sale and/or purchase, export and/or import. So, they can be laundered and made ostensibly legal, and a relatively large amount of their “street value” can remain within the ostensibly licit economy. Contrastingly, the overwhelming majority of the profit of drug sales (all the way to the sale to the user) will remain within the black market until it is laundered, and a huge amount will fund the activity of violent criminals. This can give short-sighted observers in market countries a grossly-distorted view of the harms of the illicit antiquities trade.


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