fossil artefactsA repatriation ceremony held last Monday at the National Library of Chile saw the return of 117 Moroccan fossils dated about 400 million years ago, to the Moroccan kingdom. The handover of the Moroccan-origin fossils is a clear example of the commitment between countries to combat the illicit activities called antiquities trafficking. Yet it’s also a clear indication that antiquities trafficking is still rampant because there is a high demand for them in the dark side of the global art market.

The Moroccan artefacts were seized by Chilean customs officials from smugglers. Kenza El Ghali, Morocco’s ambassador to Chile remarked that antiquities trafficking could be worse than drug trafficking. Nevertheless, the handover ceremony was officiated by Nelida Pozo Kudo, the Director of Chile’s National Heritage Service, who praised the Chilean customs for seizing the Moroccan fossils. Their action exemplified Chile’s continuing commitment to protect cultural property against criminals who violate international laws.

What Investigators Discovered about the Antiquities Trafficking Activities of Criminal Networks

Investigations into the smuggling of valuable antiquities revealed direct connections between auction houses, museums and elite art collectors and organized criminal networks. Reports have it that the European, North American and Asian markets for smuggled antiquities are open to high net-worth private collectors with reputable social standing. Many respected cultural institutions like museums are also into buying the antiquities for exhibition purposes, without risks of legal reprisal.

Some examples of compelling cases uncovered by investigators of the illicit trade of antiquities in the global art market, include:

  1. The direct link of the auction house Sotheby to the pillaging of temples in Cambodia;
  2. The Getty Museum’s link to the destruction of Italian and Greek tombs;
  3. The recent return of thousands of Iraqi artefacts revealed the direct involvement of the owners of a US craft store called Hobby Lobby;

Apparently, the criminal networks developed a system of supplying antiquities to upstanding buyers in the gray market by cleaning the taint of illicit activities. The antiquities are first laundered clean of any taint of illegal activities by putting them on display at exhibitions in respectable institutions and auction houses, as a means of obscuring any evidence of theft or crime.