Art crime

High Crimes: Studying the Illicit Antiquities Trade in the Bolivian Andes

Painting of Santa Rosa

Painting of Santa Rosa stolen from the church of the Bolivian village of Jesus de Machaca and recovered on the London art market in 2011 (image via. Bolivia’s Ministry of Cultures)

Although I am a trained field archaeologist, I now work for a criminology department. I study the looting of archaeological and historic sites and the transnational trade in illicit cultural property. That is what I am doing now, in La Paz, Bolivia, 3700 feet above sea level, thanks to a Fulbright grant and a Leverhulme fellowship.

I am part of the University of Glasgow and the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research’s Trafficking Culture project. My research group is approaching looting and antiquities trafficking from new angles to hopefully come up with interesting regulatory responses to this problem. Besides larger criminological and market analyses, our project is engaged in several regional case studies. That is where I fit in. I am looking into this phenomenon in Latin America and, right now, in Bolivia.

At the moment I am working on the looting of remote Conquest-era churches and the international market for stolen ecclesiastical paintings, sculpture and silver. The Andes are filled with rural churches: they were part of the evangelising mission of the Spanish Conquistadors. These churches are filled with spectacular and regionally-specific art. Most notable in Bolivia is silver work: for several hundred years the majority of the world’s silver came from Bolivia and Indigenous artists had a ready supply to make thousands of beautiful objects of devotion. Unfortunately there are collectors out there who are willing to buy stolen church art and, as supply meets demand, poor Bolivian communities are robbed of their heritage.

Stone Church at village of Laja

This church at the Bolivian village of Laja was robbed in 2012 (wikimedia commons)

Bolivia is culturally rich but economically poor. These churches are in bad states of repair and are insecure. Many cannot be alarmed, even if they are located in an area with electricity, because there is no money for such things. In most of the villages where churches are located residents live well below the poverty line so the idea of paying a full time guard is laughable. Increase police presence? Not when the nearest police outpost is 100km away over an unpaved road. Not when this country is thought to have one of the most corrupt police forces in the Americas.

But even the most important and well-protected Bolivian churches are not safe. In April the church of the Virgin of Copacabana, Bolivia’s most holy and miraculous shrine, was robbed of the silver and gold that anointed the Virgin herself. The baby Jesus in her arms was stolen as well. A priest who was at Copacabana on temporary assignment was jailed this week for involvement in the robbery. The holy pieces have not been recovered. My guess is that they were carried into Peru and then on to anonymity. That was the 6th church robbery in Bolivia in only 4 months.

17th Century Painting of the Virgin of Copacabana

A 17th century painting of the Virgin of Copacabana surrounded by silver (public domain)

I am constantly asked why these silver-filled churches were not robbed before. If they have been sitting out there, vulnerable, for 500 years why are they only being robbed now? The best answer I can give is that there was no illicit market for these items before. These churches are being robbed because terrible people want to own beautiful things.

I warn I am writing in advance because my day will include being without internet.

So what will my day be? On this day of archaeology I will take a taxi to the La Paz cemetery then squish myself into a minibus. I will head westward for about two hours until I reach the famous UNESCO World Heritage Site of Tiwanaku.

Tiwanaku is a vast, monumental, pre-Inka site that I excavated at (when I was a diggy-archaeologist) back in 2004 and 2005. I am sad to say that in 2011 Tiwanaku’s conquest-era church was robbed. It wasn’t the first time. The thieves have not been arrested and the objects stolen have not been recovered. I am going out there to talk to old friends about the robbery. I am interested to hear their perceptions about how the theft could have been prevented, their thoughts on the response of public authorities, and how they feel the robbery has affected the community. I want to hear the facts but I also want to hear wild speculation, rumours, and emotion. I think emotion is very important in this kind of work.

Tiwanaku's church

Tiwanaku’s conquest-era church was built by the Spanish from stoned looted from the nearby World Heritage site. It was robbed in 2011 (photo by the author)

And, really, this is an emotional issue with grave consequences. Just last year two men were caught robbing the church in the small Bolivian village of Quila Quila. The villagers apprehended the men and, in a public display of frustration, insecurity, and fear, they lynched the alleged robbers and buried them behind the church.

A ruined church in Bolivia

A ruined and abandoned church in the Altiplano, Bolivia’s high plain (Jduranboger, CC attribution)

I don’t think most people imagine that what I do is archaeology (even the Day of Archaeology website doesn’t have a category for this post to fit into!), but I think that it is. The past is what we say it is, and we believe that the physical remains of the past are important. That they are worthy of being preserved as tools of both memory and identity. When they are ripped from their contexts and sold on the black market,  everyone loses. We are all robbed because we will never get to know the information those objects contained. “Neocolonialism” is a word that is bandied about quite a bit in Bolivia: it is a word that even people with no education know. The illicit antiquities trade is a prime example of neocolonialism. When objects are stolen from vulnerable areas of the developing world and moved into the hands of rich people in the developed world, we perpetuate an unjust imbalance. We keep people down.

This is my dream job. I am so thankful to be able to do this research.

Loot Busters

What can we do about looting? Lots of people like to theorise, but I tend to prefer to be more practical.
I used to work on field projects, trying to prevent looting of archaeological sites on the ground. Partly because one project in Central Asia went very wrong – several archaeologists died, I was treated for PTSD – and partly because I realised that it was futile to try to police every square inch of land, often in war zones, I decided to try another approach.
Rather than trying to stop looting often done by poor people desperate to feed their families, I decided to try to identify the material and “burn” it at the art market, in effect prevent it from being fenced. My theory is that most (not all) art dealers and collectors are basically scrupulous people, who want to be able to collect but do not support looting.
So I came up with a very simple solution – to create a web site where all the material reported stolen could be listed and therefore identified. It sounds obvious, but no-one has done it before.  Rather than giving the site a long academic name I went for the catchier “Loot Busters” (and yes, it has been hard to resist adding the Ghostbusters theme tune to the web site):
Does it work? Surprisingly, yes. And most dealers are thrilled with the project, as it means they can identify the dodgy pieces. (Okay, a few are not happy with it). I keep thinking that, for example, Nazi loot has mostly been found by now, but a few weeks ago whilst going through the database of material stolen from Poland I noticed an 18th century piece which I happened to know was in a collection in London. Ditto a Venetian painting reported stolen by the Italians I’d seen with a London art dealer. And we’ve even found some antiquities!
There are various databases already of looted art, but most concentrate on one area – for example the exemplary Turkish Ministry of Culture web site which lists stolen Turkish material – or are hard to use. The Interpol Database only makes a couple of hundred of recently stolen items available to the public. The Art Loss Register makes no material available to unregistered users, and charges a great deal for searches – an academic wanting to look up a piece they spotted somewhere and think it stolen is unlikely to pay to check …  The Carabinieri Database is unwieldy, with very hard to use search parameters and more often than not returns this message:
These days there seem to the thousands of people working on cultural property, and dozens of conferences a year. Honestly, I don’t go to any of them – I hate theorising, and prefer practical projects.
I also don’t like the “gotcha” attitude of a lot of people who theorise about looting, so when Loot Busters find a looted piece we tell both the representative of the country from which it was stolen and whoever has it (dealer, collector or museum), so that they can sort it out – we also have a policy of confidentiality, so we can’t boast about our successes … sometimes frustrating, but keeping a low profile and letting whoever is returning the item take the credit works better in the long term.
This week I’ve been busy updating the web site, so it’s all sitting at the computer loading photos and typing … Plus we should send out another newsletter soon, so I’ll be working on that this week-end.
Most archaeologists’ main concern when it come to looting is Syria at the moment. We keep hearing reports of looting, but little precise information about pieces looted. We’ve posted photos of material that has been reported missing. Damascus Museum seems to be untouched, thank goodness, but Homs, Hama and Apamea have suffered badly. I found photos of the Hama and Apamea Museums on a web site, and the photographer, Dick Osseman, has kindly allowed us to re-post them.
This mosaic from Hama Museum is extraordinary, and pretty unique in showing women playing musical instruments – so it should be pretty easy to identify if it appears on the art market:
I’ve also been busy this week re-posting images from the Carabinieri Database of material stolen from Italy. It’s going a little slowly as I am trying to sort the material as I go into categories, and then sometimes I break them down further, but the material I’ve added can be accessed through the index here (lots more coming soon):
Some of the stolen material is so generic I doubt it will ever be possible to identify it (other material I wonder why anyone bothered to steal it, as the financial value probably won’t justify the crime). Other pieces, such as the mosaic above, is extraordinary – I was at a conference in Copenhagen in early May and several of the archaeologists were amazed at some of the stolen material, which they didn’t know about.
This Roman relief depicting a theatrical performance on the upper level and a horse race in a Circus below is pretty unique and would be easy to identify on the art market (see:
I try to make people aware of the more important pieces, so I often beg David Meadows to blog about pieces on his fabulous blog Rogue Classicism, which is on every archaeologist and Classicist’s must-read list. I’m hoping that he’ll blog this relief soon, just as he blogged this stolen Afghan glass vessel with a relief depiction of the Pharos of Alexandria (here):
I tend to downplay the excitement of dealing with looting and looted antiquities – it ain’t nothing like Lara Croft – because most of it is research rather than swinging from vines. One of the things I do love is going through the material and coming across items I probably would have missed, or which bear witness to history. This gold fibula, for example, can be very precisely dated to AD 306-7 by it’s inscription, and was owned by a supporter of Constantine in the years before he became the sole ruler of the empire (
This week has been quiet, just sitting at a computer, loading up information. Sometimes things are more exciting, for example when we find a looted item and trying amicably negotiate its return. I know collectors come in for a lot of criticism for buying looted antiquities, as do auction houses and dealers for selling them, but my experience has been that the vast majority of them co-operate when they are told they have looted items, and go out of their way to help.