Collectors are the real looters (1)

In 1993, archaeologist Ricardo Elia wrote that ‘collectors are the real looters’ [1]. He was making the crucially important point that the illicit trade in cultural objects and the associated looting of archaeological and cultural sites is a demand-led phenomenon. Yet, in contradiction to that fundamental reality, policy initiatives intended to protect cultural sites from looting are generally source-directed, or look towards interrupting supply to the destination market. (That is when they are not in reality concerned with documentation or reconstruction). Look at the ongoing looting in Syria, for example. The March 2014 UNESCO/EU International Observatory of Syrian Cultural Heritage calls for capacity building in Syria and neighbouring countries. The September 2013 International Council of Museums (ICOM) Emergency Red List of Syrian Cultural Objects at Risk, the December 2013 EU Council Regulation No 1332/2013, and the February 2015 United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 2199 are all intended to stop supply. Apart from some vaguely characterized strategies of ‘awareness-raising’, there are no practical actions aimed at reducing demand.

One reason that no action is being taken against demand is that nothing much is known about the organization and operation of the destination market. And that is a scandalous situation for us to find ourselves in. Remember that Elia was writing about demand back in 1993, nearly a quarter of a century ago now. But during that time only a few scholars have taken the time to research the nature of the destination market and of the collecting that helps shape it.

I made the point in 2006 that scholarly research into late-twentieth century (and now early-twenty-first century) collecting of cultural objects is a minority pursuit compared to research into the collecting practices of earlier centuries [2]. The following histogram shows the chronological range of papers published since 1989 in the Journal of the History of Collections, the foremost international journal for such research. The main focus of scholarly interest has been the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries.

Histogram 1

The next histogram zooms in with a decade-by-decade breakdown of the twentieth century. Very little research has been published into late-twentieth century collecting. The few papers that have been published concern paintings and modern manuscripts, nothing that is likely to have been illicitly traded. These histograms between them demonstrate convincingly the general absence of scholarly interest in recently assembled collections of unprovenanced and most likely illicitly traded objects and their market contexts.

Histogram 2

Sociologist Angela Brew has written that ‘Research sometimes avoids attempting to solve society’s closest and most pressing problems, instead choosing to escape from the world to pursue knowledge of that which is distant and socially unproblematic’ [3]. How true. But there is a sad outcome of the scholarly reluctance to investigate modern day collecting. It encourages a misdirected policy response to a problem that appears in consequence to be intractable. This scholarly evasion must now be considered part of the problem and a topic worthy of research in its own right.


[1] Elia, Ricardo, 1993. A seductive and troubling work, Archaeology 46(1): 64-69.

[2] Brodie, Neil, 2006. Smoke and mirrors. In E. Robson, L. Treadwell and C. Gosden (eds), Who Owns Objects? Oxford, Oxbow: 1–14.

[3] Brew, Angela, 2001. The Nature of Research Inquiry in Academic Contexts. London: Routledge, at 78.