Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Illicit Antiquities Trade as Conflict vs. Issue = Scary Stuff

Occasionally, I have these little bursts of insight where my mind shifts to one side and there is a pleasant clicking noise that indicates successful thought process activity. Much of the time, these are really obvious insights that I lump into the major Duh category and don’t share with anyone because it seems so embarrassingly obvious a realization. I had one of these moments a while ago in my mediation course, where my perception of the illicit antiquities trade shifted from being an issue to being a conflict. It seems like the stupidest and smallest shift in perception, because duh it’s a conflict, but increasingly I’ve felt that it is an essential distinction to make. 
Generally, I think, we all describe the trade as an issue, the same way we describe global warming or child soldiers as issues that need our time, attention, and resources to overcome. It’s a word that carries some preconceptions about how one approaches the subject in question. When someone tells me that whale hunting is an issue they care about, I assume that their primary method of addressing that issue is through activism. Very generally speaking, issue = activism in most of our minds, which is a very specific form of response to a problem. Of course, all the issues I just mentioned are also conflicts, but I feel that the distinction is particularly important to make when discussing the trade because, as we know from every Indiana Jones reference ever, it’s not taken very seriously by many to begin with. But the illicit antiquities trade is not just an issue the way global warming is an issue; it’s an intractable conflict the same way the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is an intractable conflict, which is to say it is long-standing, has eluded resolution, appears impossible to solve, and has threatened the safety of those involved.
This was a little too apparent earlier this week when Paul Barford shut down his blog temporarily  while the police investigate threats made against him and his family by a British metal detectorist. He received word that there was an attack planned against the blog, and so took it offline for a while to avoid four years of work being compromised. (It should be back in a couple weeks.) After reading so many books about the trade and the scandals that have occurred in this field, I suppose I was lulled into a false sense of security about where exactly this conflict is taking place and who is affected by it. The most obvious risks that present themselves in the literature are things like being confronted by looters with automatic weapons or getting in the way of a dealer or collector. The truth is that choosing to write publicly and unapologetically about this conflict is a risk in itself. Paul is not the only high-profile blogger in this field to receive threats. One blogger that he mentioned has even been threatened by the Italian Mafia, in addition to receiving unpleasant things from dealers and lawyers of auction houses. Suddenly, this little old blog of mine does not seem like it’s in quite the same category as joining protests in front of state capitol buildings for more environmentally friendly laws to be passed. It’s beginning to feel more like sitting in a redwood and peeing in a bucket while the chainsaws idle below you. (Maybe an exaggeration, but you get my point?)
Not only would a change in the terminology we use to describe the illicit antiquities trade more fully communicate the urgency and danger that is at the core of the trade and the battle against it, it might also help us reframe the trade in our own minds. Perhaps then we might focus more intently on seeing it as something to resolve, rather than as something to abolish or as an enemy to destroy. Of course it won’t be easy or quick, but by our individual efforts to find and fix the many flaws in this system, it could be possible for us to slowly but surely replace the need for the trade with new possibilities for education and economic gain.


  1. I draw your attention to the book "Finders Keepers" by Craig Childs that touches on the very emotional and sometimes violent side of the antiquities conflict.

  2. That's one of my favorite books on this subject! I don't agree with him all the time, but I think everyone should read it to shake up what they THINK they believe.