A (correctly-numbered) preprint copy of my historical overview of the conflict antiquities trade is available for download. As I mentioned before, the ICOM International Observatory‘s book is also available to read online.
Introduction to the conflict antiquities trade
The public and professionals alike have been sensitized to the problem of conflict antiquities through the Syrian civil war. The history of the trade is sometimes traced as far back as Iraq, Afghanistan or Cambodia. Yet, such plunder forms a piece with far older programmes of State expropriation. Complex structures for antiquities trafficking by armed groups and repressive regimes, and sophisticated markets that consume violently extracted cultural assets, have existed for more than a hundred years (Hardy, 2015: 21).
Using examples from the British Empire, the Ottoman Empire, Bolshevik Russia and the Soviet Union, the Nazi Empire, Communist East Germany, China and Cambodia, I show how conflict antiquities trafficking emerged as a legalised, bureaucratised state crime of expropriation; and how such expropriation functioned both as a way to finance political violence and as a constituent element of political violence (in the form of genocide, ethnocide and politicide).
Conclusion of the historical overview
A victim of Communist East Germany’s expropriation, collector Friedhelm Beuker observed that conflict antiquities remained ‘smeared with blood, everyone knows that, including the dealers here in the West’. Such bloodstained assets have been, and continue to be, consumed by markets around the world. This century-long history demonstrates that situation-to-situation regulation does not work and that the market will not regulate itself. It needs to be strictly regulated to reduce the flow of finances to human rights abusers (Hardy, 2015: 28).
In the near future, I hope to publish a somewhat systematic review of conflict antiquities trafficking by para-state, deep state, shadow state and anti-state forces. It will include another example of “official” state crime (in Cuba), to reintroduce the problem. And it will discuss the shift from state plunder and expropriation towards non-state looting and extortion (which, I believe, emerged during colonial states’ small wars and exploded through the Cold War).
Hardy, S A. 2015: “The conflict antiquities trade: A historical overview”. In Desmarais, F (Ed.). Countering the illicit traffic in cultural goods: The global challenge of protecting the world’s heritage, 21-31. Paris: International Council of Museums (ICOM). [pdf]