tense being reviewed: antiquities looting to order in India

A month ago, Donna Yates, who teaches on the Postgraduate Certificate in Antiquities Trafficking and Art Crime for the University of Glasgow, kindly reviewed my analysis of looting-to-order/theft-to-order of cultural property in (open access) Cogent Social Sciences. I’m now finally clawing my way back to electronic life and wanted to highlight it here.

Cultural property crime in popular culture

First and foremost, Donna pointed out that I’d missed an example of an obsessive collector in popular culture – the Collector in Guardians of the Galaxy. Yet another reminder that no open-source analysis is ever complete. Perhaps, eventually, I will have to explore the Marvel universe beyond Spider-Man and the Incredible Hulk (neither of whom is an obsessive collector).

(Saying that, idly searching, I’ve just found out that the Incredible Hulk cartoon depicted his rescue of an ancient medallion from Scimitar, who wanted to use it to rule the village of Anavrin in Tibet; there was a long-running story in the Amazing Spider-Man comic, where he struggled to save the ancient, hieroglyphic-inscribed clay Tablet of Order and Chaos from rival supervillains, Kingpin and Silvermane; and Spider-Man: Mysterio’s Menace on the GameBoy Advance required its players to rescue artefacts that had been stolen from a museum by ninjas. At least I managed to cite the Man from U.N.C.L.E.)


Donna was incredibly hard on herself. She judged that she was a ‘rather lame’ ‘hater’ in the conversation that prompted the research and ‘[only] contributed in a tiny way to pushing Hardy to write this paper’. If she was a hater, she was in very good company; her opinion will have been informed by the public statements of a host of law enforcement agencies. This is why I believe there is scope for more systematic reviews of cultural property crime.

Without her, I doubt that Peter Campbell and I would have blogged about looting to order, especially since Peter, who teaches at the Illyrian Coastal Exploration Field School for Transylvania University, has been co-directing an underwater archaeological survey around Greece’s Fourni archipelago, which has found one of the largest concentrations of shipwrecks in the world. I sincerely doubt that I would have ended up publishing a (somewhat) systematic review of the evidence.

Criminal intent

Donna also emphasised the ‘core difference’ in commissioners’ motivations for commissioning thefts. ‘The dealer does it for profit. The collector does it to have the object. There is totally a criminology paper in that distinction. Wanna co-author it with me, Dr Hardy?’ I’ve got to write some more libelous papers, but I look forward to reading it!

Past and present, part one: known unknowns

On that point, it was a nice change to write an article in which the most contentious thing was the grammar.

I do have some beef with the tense choice at some points in this article. For example, Hardy says “direct employment of looters by local dealers… **is** the most common arrangement in Belize”, citing a paper from 1991 (my emphasis). Perhaps it WAS like that in the past, but it certainly isn’t the case in Belize now [paywalled link]. I’ve seen nothing like that kind of structure since the first day I walked into that country in 2003.

I did wrestle with the phrasing, so I can see the argument, but ultimately I chose to use the present tense. If cultural heritage professionals and law enforcement agents didn’t think that antiquities were being stolen to order, they obviously weren’t catching the thieves who were stealing to order (or the collectors and dealers who were ordering the thefts).

If commissioned thieves were operating but weren’t being caught then, why should we assume that they’re not being caught now because they’re not operating anymore? If they weren’t being caught, why would they have stopped? Isn’t the simpler explanation that they’re still operating and still not being caught?

I am also not sure how valuable citing Indian crime stats from the late 1970s is in anything other than a retrospective sense, a sense that is probably valid for the subject of the article, however Hardy phrases it as “if only 0.33% of India’s reported antiquities theft cases **are** solved” (p. 3–4; my emphasis). It should be “were”, not “are”.

(I did use “were” when I initially presented the data, but used “are” for a pair of conditional cases. And this is a long way to make the short argument that we can’t say what is not happening if we don’t know what is happening. Nonetheless…)

As Donna recognises, there is ‘a chronic lack of official info on antiquities trafficking generally, and the looting-to-order phenomenon specifically’. The basic reason for citing those statistics was the simple fact that they existed. India’s National Crime Records Bureau’s overall statistics for 2014 and across 2004-2013, for instance, do not distinguish between robberies, burglaries and thefts according to which commodities were stolen and do not specify cultural property crime rates, let alone conviction rates.

Separately, the NCRB does record the number of cases and value of cultural property (including antiques) stolen and recovered. Apparently, in 2014, there were 764 known thefts of cultural property and 221 recoveries of cultural property. That could be characterised as a 28.93% recovery rate, although that rate would be a very rough impression, because the fact that any of the stolen property was recovered in a case does not imply that all of the stolen property was recovered. More generally, some of the recovered antiquities in any one year will come from previous years’ thefts and unidentified or unreported thefts. (It is not clear how many of 2014’s recoveries relate to the fall of Subhash Kapoor’s global empire.) And the fact that any stolen property was recovered does not (necessarily) imply that any trafficking structures were dismantled.

In 2013, there were 1,128 known thefts and 243 recoveries (21.54%); in 2012, 777 known thefts and 277 recoveries (35.65%); in 2011, 799 known thefts and 192 recoveries (24.03%); in 2010, 647 known thefts and 197 recoveries (30.45%); in 2009, 992 known thefts and 327 recoveries (32.96%); in 2008, 1,193 known thefts and 500 recoveries (41.91%); in 2007, 1,303 known thefts and 486 recoveries (37.30%); in 2006, 1,307 known thefts and 367 recoveries (27.08%); and, in 2005, 1,012 known thefts and 326 recoveries (32.21%). I would have collated 2004-2013, but the available statistics for 2004 did not include the total numbers of known thefts and recoveries.

There was still no indication of prosecutions and/or convictions. As shown by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), who acknowledged that they solved cases even more rarely than they recovered stolen cultural property, and they recovered stolen cultural property in less than 10% of cases, it is impossible to infer (significant) disruption of cultural property criminals from (even significant) interception of stolen cultural property.

For example, the police might check one high street dealer and recover illicit antiquities from ten different thefts. Even if they imprisoned that dealer, they wouldn’t (necessarily) identify and disrupt the supply chain(s). Clearly, a ten-year-average (seemingly partial) recovery rate of 29.38% (9,922 known thefts and 2,915 recoveries) does hold out the promise of a better-than-0.33% prosecution/conviction rate, but how much better?

All of this suggests that the majority of cases are unsolved. To return to points in the article, commissioned thefts necessarily constitute an unknown number of unsolved cases, and we cannot assume that it is not happening if we do not know what is happening most of the time. But that’s an (important) side issue.

Past and present, part two: plus ça change…

Donna pointed out that,

there is a lot going on in India these days, some of it clearly what Hardy defines as “predictive theft to order”… and that he uses as an example in the text, but none of it like what was going on in the 1970s.

I completely agree that, in some ways, the situation has changed but, in other ways, the problem remains the same.

My case-cracking rate of 0.33% came from Jeanette Greenfield, who recorded in her book on the Return of Cultural Treasures that there were about a thousand known thefts of antiquities in India in each of the last three years of the 1970s, yet ‘only ten cases were solved‘. As the NCRB’s data show, there are still about a thousand known thefts each year.

That number does not demonstrate that the level of criminal activity has remained unchanged. It may reflect improved documentation and monitoring of targets for crime. Equally, it does not demonstrate that the level of criminal activity has changed either. At least Tamil Nadu’s Additional Director General of Police, Prateep V. Philip, believes that idol theft is in fact ‘growing‘. Again, we don’t know how many cases are being solved.

Paraphrased by the Guardian’s Jason Burke, ADG Philip, who maintains India’s only Idol Wing within the Economic Offences Wing of his Criminal Investigation Department (CID), has observed that (above-ground) antiquities are ‘usually stolen to order [to supply buyers abroad] after being identified by specialists’.

And ADG Philip should know. While his Idol Wing has investigated probably less than 1% of India’s cultural property thefts since its establishment in 1983 (271 cases of probably 32,000), it has achieved a remarkable 70% conviction rate (with a 20% acquittal rate and a 10% “undetectable [criminal]” – unprosecutable case – rate).

Then and now, Yemen is neglected

As highlighted by Tarek M.’s comments on Egypt, Iraq and Yemen and Julie S. Meisami’s comments on Afghanistan, looting-to-order is not just a real problem; it is a real problem that exploits, and worsens, crisis and conflict. As demonstrated by these cases and Yemen’s cluster of other under-reported and under-supported humanitarian and cultural heritage crises, looting-to-order and other forms of cultural property crime are not subjected to the empirical investigation that they deserve and need.

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