Protecting Cultural Objects

PART ONE: BACKGROUND
The Threats to the World's Cultural Objects (1/3)
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The Threats to the World's Cultural Objects have increased greatly in the last thirty years. They include the pillaging of archaeological sites, the illegal export of objects protected by national legislation, the theft of individual works of art, and looting, damage, and destruction in times of war and civil disorder. The illicit trade in stolen and/or illegally exported cultural objects, in particular, has grown so large that INTERPOL now believes it to be one of the most prevalent categories of international crime.1
One of the most serious but least publicized threats is the hemorrhaging of cultural objects from the archaeological sites of Latin America, Africa, and Asia. In an influential article published in 1969, Professor Clemency Coggins drew attention to the plight of pre-Columbian sites in Guatemala and Mexico.2 She reported that in the previous ten years there had been "an incalculable increase in the number of monuments systematically stolen, mutilated and illicitly exported," and declared that "Not since the sixteenth century has Latin America been so ruthlessly plundered."3

The problem of the looting of archaeological sites has become a major one for Africa, where the purchase for export of ethnological/ ethnographic objects and the widespread looting of archaeological sites have increased rapidly since the 1970s. It has been reported that the illegal excavation of sites in the archaeologically rich country of Mali has intensified in the past two decades, partly as a result of "deteriorating living conditions caused by severe periods of drought in West Africa since 1974" and partly because of the "growing interest of museums, galleries and collectors of Malian arts."4 The illegal excavations are usually carried out by local people, sometimes entire villages, working for antique dealers.5 It is claimed that the problem has become so bad in some parts of Africa that "our knowledge of artifacts from the past is related more to pillage than to archaeological research."6

In Asia, too, the problem has grown to serious proportions. The Chinese authorities believe that antiquities are now the largest single class of item smuggled out of their country.7 Statistics published by the China State Bureau of Cultural Relics indicate that over 40,000 tombs were reported plundered in 1989 and 1990 alone. The monuments of Cambodia have suffered severe depredations in the last 25 years, the casualties including the World Heritage Site of Angkor Wat.8

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