by Peter Tompa
Saving Antiquities for Everyone (SAFE) has started yet another "Say Yes" advocacy campaign in support of import restrictions, this time on behalf of Bulgaria. http://www.savingantiquities.org/Bulgariamou.php
But, what will SAFE's campaign (and that of the AIA) for "no questions asked" import restrictions really do for Bulgaria and the protection of its cultural patrimony, but help support the corrupt status quo?
Though SAFE's advocacy document has plenty of links detailing individual stories about looting of archaeological sites, SAFE's advocacy fails to mention a sobering report about the state of Bulgaria’s cultural policy prepared by the Center for the Study of Democracy. See The Antiquities Trade-Dealers, Traffickers, and Connoisseurs, in Organized Crime in Bulgaria: Markets and Trends 178-197 (Center for Study of Democracy 2007) (“CSD Report”) (available at:http://www.csd.bg/artShow.php?id=9120(last checked, 10/19/11).
This report, prepared with funding from the U.S. Department of Justice, appears to largely reflect the views of government cultural officials and archaeologists. Nevertheless, the report contains some eye-opening facts that should give pause to anyone who might assume all is well with how Bulgaria manages its own cultural patrimony:
• From 100,000 to 250,000 Bulgarians regularly conduct illicit excavations. (Id. at 179.)
• “Most Bulgarian museums have poor recording practices of the artifacts in stock. The general lack of accountability, in particular of museum directors, further aggravates the situation…. The majority of museums do not observe the international standard for describing art, antiques and antiquities with photographs and descriptions of each object (the so called Object ID). In Bulgarian museums objects are often loosely described in general terms, which makes it impossible for them to be tracked, positively identified and restored. The dire state of museum documentation dooms to failure any efforts to trace stolen coins or other items transferred abroad.” (Id. at 183.)
• “To make their anti-looting and anti-trafficking efforts seem more effective enforcement agencies announce lavish values of the illicitly acquired cultural objects they capture.” (Id.)
• “During interviews, carried out for purposes of this paper, it was made clear that the prescribed system of registration [of coins in private collections] by commissions made up of local museum employees was not found trustworthy, as it did not provide safeguards against the theft of valuable coins which could be replaced with cheaper lower grade versions by museum workers.” (Id. at 193.)
• “Some collectors have voiced their suspicions that past burglaries of private coin collections have been committed with the involvement of corrupt police officers or other enforcement officials.” (Id. at 193 n. 312.)
• “Inertia and neglect are not the only factors to throttle effective enforcement. Widespread corruption among local middle-ranking law-enforcement officers who earn personal gains on the black cultural property market also has an adverse effect. Experts have outlined three major forms of corrupt relationships between police officers and antique dealers/looters: 1) policemen are bribed to cover looters and deter police investigation; 2) officers of higher rank become directly involved in illicit antiquities trading, and 3) officers that must prevent and fight cultural property violations become collectors. In addition, the grading of cultural objects held by looters, dealers or collectors is itself often done by would-be experts whose only training is a two-week course delivered by the Privatization Agency on a regular basis that can hardly have equipped them with the knowledge they need to possess about cultural goods. Despite their determination to get looters or persons in illicit hold of antiquities convicted, law-enforcement and investigative bodies are often hampered by either incompetent or intentionally falsified expert assessments presented at the trial phase.” (Id. at 194.)
• “In 2003, the head of Cultural Property Department at the National Police Col. Georgi Getov was discharged. According to media reports he had operated one of the main antiquity smuggling channels in Bulgaria in partnership with a number of prosecutors, NSCOC officers, local archaeological museum directors and other officials who had served as a supply link between looters and the implicated department head. Maritsa Dnes daily, 7 May 2003.” (Id. at 194 n. 316.)
Under the circumstances, the US could best help Bulgaria by tabling any talk of import restrictions to allow Bulgaria time to act on the CSD report's recommendations. Though any looting of Bulgarian archaeological sites is regrettable, it is best addressed in Bulgaria itself through the regulation of metal detectors and serious consideration of CSD's other suggestions before import restrictions are imposed.
In Bulgaria, as in many other nations that have come (or will come) to the US State Department seeking import restrictions on antiquities, official corruption is rampant and pervasive. Citizens of these nations bribe officials to look the other way while they plunder archaeological sites, openly search for coins with metal detectors and smuggle looted objects across national borders.
One need not be an Einstein to realize that looting cannot be deterred by US import restrictions while such rampant corruption continues. What import restrictions instead provide is political cover for politicians who should be cleaning up this corruption. They can point to import restrictions as evidence that they are doing something to correct the situation, without having to pay the political price involved in actually reforming their corrupt governments - and enraging thousands of their political supporters. In these nations, import restrictions tend to postpone and perhaps even avert development of public outrage such as that which has recently toppled several oppressive and corrupt dictatorships.
US import restrictions are not a solution to the problem of looting - they are in reality part of the problem.