Sep 10, 2022 - Economy

When antiquities looters get caught

Illustration of a burglar's hand hovering menacingly over the Pyramids of Giza.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Nearly all important antiquities collections either deliberately or inadvertently include looted material. Finally, much of that material is starting to be repatriated

Why it matters: A recent criminal indictment could give pause to art-world grandees who might have turned a blind eye to evidence of illegal trafficking.

  • Grandees don't get much grander than Jean-Luc Martinez, the former director of the Louvre, who was recently arrested and charged with money laundering and fraud. The case revolves around antiquities looted from Egypt during the Arab Spring that were subsequently sold to the Louvre Abu Dhabi.

Driving the news: The Metropolitan Museum, which returned a stolen gold coffin to Egypt in 2019, recently gave back 58 pieces to Italy that had found their way into the collection of hedge fund manager Michael Steinhardt, and thence to the Met. Steinhardt is now banned for life from acquiring any more antiquities.

The big picture: So long as rich individuals and institutions are willing to spend millions of dollars on foreign antiquities, looters will have a financial incentive to continue their destructive trade.

  • Anything that causes such people to stop buying antiquities — even licit ones — is therefore very welcome.
  • Given how hard it is to be sure of provenance, the safe course now for any collector should be to just stop collecting.
  • Ideally they will bequeath their collections back to the countries of origin, many of which are building museums to house them.
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