by Simon Mackenzie and Penny Green (eds). Oxford, UK, and Portland, Oregon: Hart Publishing, 2009. 182pp. Hardback. £45.00/$90.00. ISBN: 9781841139913. Paperback. £22.00/$44.00. ISBN: 9781841139920.

Reviewed by Sawyer Sylvester, Department of Sociology, Bates College, Email: ssylvest [at]


CRIMINOLOGY AND ARCHAEOLOGY is a collaborative effort among professionals and scholars to join in describing the harms involved in the international trafficking in looted antiquities, to point out the weakness in the international legal structures that deal with such harms, and to suggest improvements in governing policy which further collaboration might provide.

The introductory paper by Mackenzie and Green points out that the theft of cultural objects, although bad enough itself, has a special harm in that it breaches an historical record by destroying the material context of historical objects, a context which can never be restored.

Preventive efforts have generally consisted of vesting legislation in which the state claims ownership of buried artifacts of a certain age and export controls that simply mandate a license for export of antiques. These controls, however, are unlikely to have much effect in countries that are the source of antiquities since the likelihood of apprehension and prosecution is remote; and countries where antiquities are marketed often simply ignore the laws of source nations. The legal problem is exacerbated by the complex transit routes often taken by stolen antiquities, a process which provides a sort of documentary laundering.

Kenneth Polk’s paper begins by pointing out the relative lack of work by criminologists in the field of looted antiquities, especially empirical work. This is surprising given the attention that has been focused on other illegal markets such as those involving drugs. And it’s not that criminology has nothing to offer. There are elements of criminological theory – Routine Activities Theory comes to mind – which might be trained on the behavior involved in looted antiquities. Such a theoretically informed view might serve to free the current policy on antiquities from what Polk sees as an obsession with deterrence, a philosophy which he sees has generally not worked.

A second obsession Polk sees in current policy is the emphasis on remediation over prevention, such as getting the goods back over initial protection of antiquities from theft. However, protection is difficult precisely because archaeological finds are often in remote areas of less-developed countries. However much, or little, supply factors are affected by deterrence or prevention, Polk suggests the solution ultimately lies with the demand elements. Some sort of cultural shift must take place in both market and source countries such that [*716] purchasers refuse to accept antiquities without adequate provenance (especially museums, many of which have filled their vaults with inadequately documented goods). At the same time, all nations must place a higher priority on the protection of their cultural heritage.

Tony Ward’s contribution to the collection centers on the problem of how to recognize the special harm involved in the looting of antiquities. This harm would seem to be tied directly to the nature of value attached to historical artifacts. Ward invokes the sociology of Georg Simmel, specifically his PHILOSOPHY OF MONEY. Simmel wished to establish a sociological origin for value different from the reductionist views of Marx. Simmel acknowledged the importance of exchange (as in Marx’s concept of exchange value), but exchange value freed from the marketplace.

This allows Simmel, according to Ward, to suggest two types of non-market value. One is aesthetic value and the other is a sort of value intrinsic to the object itself. Of course such value really isn’t intrinsic; we just socially define it as such, which is much the same. Ward claims that cultural antiquities belong to this privileged class. Their theft and subsequent demotion to the economic marketplace tears a hole in our common historical and cultural identity.

Neil Brodie’s essay is concerned with the ambivalence of the academic community to the looting of antiquities, especially historic manuscripts. Some academics decry the loss of context for stolen artifacts, but others see manuscripts as fair game for scholarship, however obtained. He sees as singularly absent from consideration the ethical implications of the scholarly use of stolen material. Brodie suggests that a partial explanation lies in the dependence of academicians on dealers for material for scholarly research, and the dealer’s use of the academicians for translation, evaluation, and publication of manuscripts. Given the available knowledge on the extent of illegality in the market for historical manuscripts, Brodie believes academic discussion should be more open to the discussion of criminality. But, of course, this would involve the issue of academic complicity in illegal markets.

Gordon Lobay’s contribution deals with the likelihood of success for international agreements designed to prevent the marketing of looted antiquities. He uses as an example the agreement between Italy and the United States restricting importation of ancient Roman antiquities. Lobay reports on a study conducted to determine the effect of law on sales of antiquities at Sotheby’s and Christie’s in New York. Variables indicative of success were a reduction in volume of antiquities reaching the U.S., an increase in provenance information in auction catalogs of those houses, and an increase in prices achieved at auction.

Lobay found that a reduction in volume did not take place as predicted, and findings on price were inconclusive. Provenance information did increase, but only information on prior sales, which was not the kind of historical record envisioned in the agreement. In short, the agreement could hardly be seen as a success. [*717]

Roger Bland’s paper first notes that the division often made between source countries and market countries can be misleading, especially in regard to the United Kingdom which has one of the largest markets in stolen antiquities and yet is, at the same time, a prime source of antiquities of its own. Its position as a source nation can be explained in part by the history of the largely ineffective efforts to inhibit the transfer of historical artifacts, a history which Bland recounts. But part of the problem also lies with an altogether new marketplace for antiquities -- the Internet, and especially eBay.

The problem with any effort to make eBay the target of law enforcement efforts is that eBay is never in actual possession of stolen antiquities, and current laws are based on the presumption of actual possession. In lieu of legal restraint, there have been efforts to negotiate agreements with eBay – efforts that Bland does not describe as successful.

Sweden is another source country for antiquities, but Kallman and Korsell add another dimension to the destruction of archaeological sites. They make distinction between “find offenses” and “damage offenses.” The first generally covers looting. The second covers damage to archaeological sites, not as the result of theft but through wrongful or negligent land use for agriculture, forestry, or construction. The authors suggest that in our efforts to explore the market forces that drive the destruction of cultural heritage we not stop at the underground market for stolen objects, but consider as well the market forces that drive runaway construction, deforestation, and the poorly planned expansion of agriculture.

David White describes the relationship between state regulation and the marketplace as being paradoxical. The vision of the state and its regulatory powers as being an entity outside of, and imposed on, other social systems – markets, for example – is misconceived. The relationship between the state and markets is less antagonistic and more symbiotic, or, perhaps, dialectical. Markets could not exist without the state due to their inherent tendency to self-destruct. And the creation and regulation of markets is part of the defining function of the state.

Given White’s view of the state, it is difficult to maintain the dichotomous view of legal and illegal markets, since they are both, in one way or another, creatures of the state. Thus, regulation of markets, including the market in antiquities, becomes less a process of imposing and enforcing rules than efforts to survey and manage social relations within the market.

In the final contribution, Mackenzie and Green note that one might expect regulating the sale of antiquities would be more effective in market countries, in part because there are fewer market than source countries. Because one of the more important market countries is the United Kingdom, the authors undertook an evaluation of the 2003Act that punishes dealing in “tainted” cultural objects. By gathering survey and interview data, they sought to determine the effects of the market reduction strategies pertaining to looted antiquities that the 2003Act represents. [*718]

They found the 2003Act to be of limited effectiveness for a variety of reasons. The Act was not retroactive, and it was difficult to establish that any object was acquired after the Act’s effective date. In addition, any defendant had to acquire the object with knowledge or belief that it had been stolen – an element of a crime always difficult to prove. But perhaps most problematic of all was the relative lack of will and resources put forth by the government compared to the money, influence, and legal talent available to museums, collectors, and art dealers.

The authors do note some hopeful outcomes from the study, and some changes in current market reduction strategies that might hold promise. At least, they acknowledge that any of these would be an improvement over the status quo.

I have nothing but praise for both the overall effort of the book to suggest a promising relationship between criminology and archaeology as well as for the information on the illicit market in antiquities provided by the individual papers. However, as a criminologist, I would like to have seen more reference to criminology’s rather substantial literature on the theory and practice of crime prevention as it might be applied to illicit markets in stolen antiquities. This would seem to be a rich source, largely untapped, by any of the papers. Perhaps such a discussion could be included in a second edition.

Simmel, Georg, and David Frisby. 2004 (3d ed). THE PHILOSOPHY OF MONEY. Routledge.

© Copyright 2010 by the author, Sawyer Sylvester.