Friday, April 6, 2012

Organized Crime and the Antiquities Trade?

A manuscript released in January of this year, written by Dr. Alderman of the University of Wisconsin law school, takes a very thorough overview of the global antiquities trade's key factions and the purported links between it and trans-national organized crime. Providing numerous case studies and discussing several categories of so-called "criminal excavators," the middlemen they supply (both local wholesalers and inter-regional traffickers), and the roles of final-destination retailers, private owners, and museums/curators of diverse ethical stances in completing the circle. It is this very cycle that Drs. Neil Brodie and Simon Mackenzie and colleagues from the University of Glasgow have just received a major grant (and popular press) to study in more depth. I imagine that a good visual representation of the connection between syndicates and the trade is something like the visual above left...

Most case studies discussed in this original document derive from European, North American or South America, but the Southeast Asian trade through Bangkok and Singapore gets some mention. I am especially happy to note that the trade in small, portable items from Southeast Asian prehistoric sites (e.g. "beads by the bucketful," pp. 24) is also discussed, along with the more visible word-wide trade is historic period statuary from Cambodia, region-wide, and elsewhere. The key discussion of organized crime and the antiquities trade at the end of the document centers around the issue of "lateralization," i.e. the inter-connectivity of the various elements that sustain the trade (creatively termed a "biosphere," pp. 31).

The claim that there is no such thing as a licit trade truly separate from the illicit one is something that I in my research have come to agree with. As discussed in the manuscript, the licit trade uses the infrastructure of the illicit trade to support itself, and all participants help support said trade, even those individuals who "insist on provenance and have never handled a tainted object" (pp. 32). Although there are specific points I disagree with (e.g. referring to those who sell the occasional artifact found while digging gardens or plowing fields-the "subsistence diggers"-as criminal), the information provided is well written for the informed general public, well referenced, and deserving of wider dissemination.


  1. I had downloaded that document but not looked at it yet. Now I know what my tomorrow is going to be! Thank you for that!

  2. With all due respect to the author, the “proof” for this article is stitched together from the opinions of individuals with a vested interest in claiming that there is a link between the antiquities trade and organized crime. It also depends on a very loose definition of “organized”, requiring the involvement of only three or more individuals acting in concert.

    In that regard, I would note that under such a theory one Damien Huffer, who was arrested while studying anthropology at the University of Arizona for criminal trespass with two other students who were protesting a Shriner organized circus, would also be involved in “organized crime.” See

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