In September, the British Museum announced that it had helped British police identify and return a 4,400-year-old sculpture to Iraq. The object is a limestone plaque that would have originally lined the wall of a temple in the region of Sumer, now southern Iraq. The plaque was previously unknown, presumably looted from a site in Iraq and smuggled out of the country. It was identified after being posted for sale on an online website, TimeLine Auctions, in May of 2019. TimeLine insists that they did nothing wrong, that they checked sources such as the Art Loss Register. But this is apparent due diligence is just a façade. As any experienced auction house would know, objects looted from the ground would not show up in a database of known items reported missing.
The announcement was merely the latest in a series of such events over the past several years. The British Museum is, in its own words, “the main advisory body in the UK in the event of any enquiries over illicit trafficking or export licensing of antiquities,” working with the Metropolitan Police (aka Scotland Yard), British customs, and other government agencies. Earlier this year they announced the return of a sculpture looted from the National Museum of Afghanistan in the early 1990s (again after being offered for sale by TimeLine Auctions). Last year, it was nine terracotta heads from Buddhist sculptures smuggled from Afghanistan, a 3,100 year old kudurru (a stone recording a land grant) looted from southern Iraq, and 156 cuneiform tablets, “the largest such group to be seized in the UK and returned to Iraq.” (This month, the Guardian reported that the museum has identified six glazed tiles smuggled out of Uzbekistan.
Returning stolen artifacts to their countries of origin is a good thing. It reverses the drain on cultural heritage that occurs during conflicts and builds up good will between countries. But how much is this impacting the illegal antiquities trade in general? Several recent studies suggest the trade continues on a massive scale, despite the work of governments, law enforcement, and institutions such as the British Museum. The studies also show that antiquities traffickers favor coins and other small finds — items of little value individually but that add up in bulk, and that can be smuggled easily — not the unique sculptural pieces typically announced by the British Museum. While they may grab headlines, the museum’s efforts are a drop in the bucket.
Ironically, Dr St John Simpson, the British Museum curator most directly involved with the identification and return of these trafficked artifacts, has consistently downplayed the level of antiquities looting and smuggling going on today. Simpson insists that most antiquities looting in Iraq ended in the immediate aftermath of the 2003 US invasion, despite Iraqi claims to the contrary. He has also suggested that no artifacts can be proven to have entered the UK from Syria in the last nine years while dismissing the overwhelming evidence of large-scale looting during that country’s civil war.
It is also ironic to see the British Museum at the forefront of cultural heritage repatriation. The museum is infamous for failing to seriously address how it acquired much of its own collection — most notably the Parthenon sculptures (known as the “Elgin marbles”), but also the Benin bronzes, the Maqdala collection, and many other artifacts. “The world’s largest receiver of stolen goods” is what a leading human rights lawyer, Geoffrey Robertson, called the museum in the Guardian last November. A day after the Guardian article, Robertson’s book Who Owns History? Elgin’s Loot and the Case for Returning Plundered Treasure came out – and so did a British Museum blog post by St John Simpson on the British Museum’s work “identifying and returning looted objects.” The timing is suggestive. Does the museum use its work policing the antiquities market to distract from its historic role in acquiring looted and smuggled objects?
Museum public relations presents its work in identifying trafficked antiquities as an altruistic enterprise. “The British Museum is absolutely committed to the fight against illicit trade and damage to cultural heritage,” director Hartwig Fischer assures the public in the museum’s press release for the Sumerian plaque. Earlier this year, Fischer praised the museum’s efforts “in the reconstruction of the rich cultural heritage of Afghanistan after decades of conflict, destruction and loss.” What goes unmentioned is that the British Museum receives many benefits from this and other cultural heritage efforts. For instance, it gets to put many of the trafficked artifacts it identifies on temporary display before handing them over to their source countries. (The Sumerian plaque is currently on temporary display at the British Museum.) And throughout, it gets glowing press coverage.
The British Museum could use its work identifying smuggled antiquities to take a thoughtful look at its own past. Instead, we get empty clichés. The reality is that cultural heritage is determined by the powerful for their own benefit, whether they are governments, wealthy individuals — or institutions like the British Museum.