The Illegal Trade of Cultural Racketeering

When we buy art, or consume something, we hardly think about where it came from, the process it took to land into our hands, or who made it and the conditions they made it in. Of course, there has been a rise in consumers becoming more aware of where they buy their products from, but for those who don’t bother checking, is there an ethical obligation to not buy products from questionable origin, such as fast fashion? What about buying art with questionable origins, and what about buying art that was stolen and is now being sold to you? The market and economy surrounding stolen antiquities is a $1.6 billion dollar industry — that’s a lot of money people are spending on stolen goods. Not everyone might have known they were buying a stolen good, but for those who are buying online or in certain cities, like Hong Kong, which is known as a place with lax legal restrictions on stolen antiquities, many choose to willingly turn a blind eye to the cycle of theft they are helping to continue through their purchases. Not only that, but the original artists who made those works (though they may be long dead) and their artwork is not being respected, but those who cherish the art, such as through theft of cultural property, can leave a hole in understanding one’s own culture.

To introduce more background on this topic, there have been an increasing number of thefts in museums and auction houses that target Chinese antiquities; however, in places like Hong Kong, there aren’t enough regulations or enforcement that take legal and punitive action against these thieves who resell stolen art on the market. Hong Kong is known as a paradise for thieves, with the law called market overt, which protects collectors and allows them to maintain good title over acquiring objects, even if they are stolen. Previous owners of the art and antiquities can’t take legal action or claim against them, resulting in stolen cultural property and art that is never returned to its owner. An example of this was a precious art piece that was transported to Hungary, but to the original owner’s shock, was stolen without their permission. The original owners, who lived in Yangchun, a small town in the province of Fujian, kept the precious antiquity of a 1000 year old remains of a monk in a local temple. Not surprisingly, this antiquity was acquired in Hong Kong. The small town that lost this art piece to ignorant buyers and thieves have lost an important part of their history that cannot be replaced. But who is to blame? The issue with Hong Kong’s legal system surrounding antiquities is there is an old English law that is essentially a “thieves charter”. As long as the goods were bought in good faith, they can maintain good title.

So, do people who willingly buy stolen antiquities and art have an ethical obligation to not buy it, or to report it to authorities? The crime is not only in acquiring the art, but in consuming it and taking it away from someone else’s culture. However, who is to blame? The person who stole it, or the person who bought it? Ultimately, I think both actions are to blame because they continue the cycle of stolen goods that ultimately maintain the billion dollar worth economy of stolen goods. It is the buyer’s responsibility to buy art through reputable agents with proper documentation and simply saying, “I didn’t know” isn’t a good enough excuse.

An example of another country where looting precious art and antiquities takes place is the Middle east in which a black market thrives. This theft of heritage, called “cultural racketeering” takes place mainly in the area that is under control by Iraq and Syria’s terrorist organizations, IS and ISIS. As mentioned earlier, the cultural and historical implications of the art and cultural heritage are immense — without them, one’s history and culture is stripped away. Particularly in the area controlled by IS and ISIS, is the cradle of civilization that contains ancient civilizations such as Mesopotamia, the Ottomans, the Romanempire, and much more. The cultures and artifacts at these areas often contain priceless art that for a place where civilization was basically born, thus influencing every corner of the world to some degree, is absolutely priceless. Their crimes, looting, raiding, and destroying great structures and art forms include the Tetrapylon, a Roman structure, destroying objects in the Mosul Museum, and Nimrud’s Northwest Palace which contains sculptures and glazed tiles. The two terrorist organizations not only destroy these art pieces of great value, but also sell it on the black market to fund their activities. Furthermore, they have stated they destroyed these items because they are considered “idolatry” according to their version of religious faith.

As stated earlier, buying art pieces on the market without verifying its origin, not questioning where it came from, whether the culture and place it came from consented to its sale, is simply lending a helping hand to continuing the lucrative cycle of looting and selling illegally obtained items. It desecrates the preservation of these pieces of art, the artist’s original intentions, and leads to cultural racketeering. Not only this, but funding the market is essentially allowing these illegal acts, such as IS and ISIS to continue plundering and selling priceless art.

What may be even more shocking is that looting takes place in archaeological sites as well. Many have testified to witnessing illegal digging, which causes irreparable damage to sites that hold precious art and are a testimony to ancient cultures, but didn’t step up to stop it because it simply wasn’t listed as a part of archaeologist\’s professional ethics. Similar to those who willingly buy stolen art on the market and sell it, those who continue this cycle of looted antiquities and art steal the future’s ability to appreciate ancient cultures, or their own.

So what can be done instead? We can start with Hong Kong’s old English law in its legal system that has protected thieves for too long and allow original owners of the art to take legal action. The markets should be more properly regulated and monitored, and criminals who are caught should be held more accountable with stricter convictions and sentences.

I want to suggest the possibility of putting a tax on the industry of antiquities so it makes buyers reconsider before buying or selling possibly stolen pieces of art. This could be placed particularly on Hong Kong, whose officials continue to turn a blind eye to the criminal activities against art going on obviously under their noses. However, the problem with this is artists and buyers who are innocent are being unnecessarily punished. In addition, this could stifle the art market and harm artists.

Furthermore, although I know I have explained my strict viewpoint on why those who buy and sell looted art continue a cycle of stealing culture, I do need to think about their situations. Perhaps, those who sell stolen art simply need a way to make their means. Trying to understand the criminal’s behavior and why they acted that way is an important part of empathy for humans. Perhaps, those who sold the stolen art got it from someone else, who got it from yet another person — similar to how goods and art are pass through many different hands before they land at the final buyer’s hands. Is it therefore someone’s responsibility along the way to check the origin of the piece to ensure it wasn’t stolen? Should it be everyone’s responsibility? For those who simply need to make money for their family or to make ends meet, do they willfully ignore its questionable origins because it’s easier that way?

Ultimately, in consuming art, buying and selling it, do we have an ethical obligation to make sure it passed through people’s hands with complete consent? I want to argue that if it has great cultural significance and that without it, one’s culture and history is stolen, then those who willingly contribute to that, like the terrorist organizations IS and ISIS should be punished. However, although it is extreme to point this out, the funds they get from selling looted antiquities is to fund their weapons and army. There are two sides to each coin — we think they are evil, and they think we are evil. They believe by selling this art, and funding themselves, it is justified because they believe their cause is right. Furthermore, considering the points of views of the criminals who sell stolen art may need to support themselves or their family financially, and standing on a high seat judging and pointing my finger at them without trying to understand why they engaged in this criminal behavior against art isn’t right either.

And at the end of the day, what can one individual person do? The cycle will continue regardless of whether we dig deep and research the origins of an art piece before we buy it. This economy surrounding stolen antiquities worth billions will continue. Art will continue to be stolen, precious culture and history destroyed, perhaps for some righteous cause justified by criminals, or for perhaps for personal reasons. If we can try to understand why people engage in these criminal behaviors against art, then perhaps that’s the first step forward towards ending this practice.

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Faith Goh

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