Colonial plundering and illicit trafficking of cultural goods – two phases of the same problem?

Decolonization movements are, fortunately, in full swing. Their goal is to make visible and deconstruct the reminiscences of colonialism in our mentality, behavior, societal organization – such as our standards of beauty, which tend to prefer blond and blue eyed to black and curly haired; and our social structures, which render our institutions more violent towards people with the latter traits than with the former. These traces didn’t vanish when the colonial formal administrations ended after the Second World War, and they are the underlying cause of some issues we currently have. It is an everyday fight and at the same time a long term process to identify these past-present relations, deconstructs these paradigms and builds bit by bit a better world.

In this context, and with more and more movements of countries to claim back their heritage stolen in colonial times, and also of these former colonizer countries to restitute them, one question one might ask is… What is the connection between the colonial plundering of cultural objects in the past and the current huge problem of illicit trafficking of cultural goods?

There are several points of contact between present and past reality, but this connection is not direct, of cause and consequence, nor simple, of automatic emulation today of yesterday’s dynamics. The major point is that most of the source countries (from where cultural goods are taken) are countries of the global south, once colonized – Central American, African, Southeast Asian countries. And most of the market countries (to which they go) are of the global north, once colonizers – such as Europe.

The source countries have a rich historical past but not a prosperous economic condition today. They are poor or developing countries, or countries at war, where before an attachment to their own history, there is a need among people to find sources of income to eat today, or to get more weapons to continue fighting and not die today, necessities which can be provisionally satisfied by a theft of a piece from an archaeological site. And, in terms of those responsible for protecting heritage, there is also precariousness. The stolen sites and institutions have not enough personnel and systems of surveillance, because they often lack funds, or are completely abandoned in times of conflict. Likewise, the police of these countries often do not have budgets, equipment or know-how to cross information about a piece with databases on trafficked objects, in order to identify stolen items and forged documents.

The market countries, in turn, are those where the major collectors are – merchants, auction houses, museums, antique dealers. On the one hand, they have money to invest in the expensive operation of trafficking – which involve thieves “on the ground”; figures who make the bridge between illegal and the “legal” world; trips through several countries, to impose a distance between the stolen object and the original place of the crime, to take advantage of unequal legislations. On the other hand, they are also those who profit the most with these goods, in their speculative potential in the art and antiques market. In terms of structure, their countries are also those that have laws, police forces and institutions most capable of “protecting” this “possession”. Their laws are more rigid, their databases and monitoring systems are more robust, their police and customs agents have more funding, physical structure, professional and technical training.

All this is closely related to the legacy of the period when colonial plundering took place, to the world order it build and left. However, it has not so much to do with the colonial plundering itself. These were not illegal at the time, and therefore did not have the same human, institutional and logistical machinery necessary for illicit trafficking today. Moreover, they obeyed another logic, not of global capital and the art market, as today, but of power and domination.

The colonial plundering was regulated by a dynamic of hierarchization of the peoples of the world, of dehumanization of the Others, of spoliation of their material culture and knowledge to be exposed in cabinets of curiosities, museums and universal exhibitions, which intended to include in an evolutionary line everything that has already been produced and created in the world. What was plundered was automatically inscribed in the categories of primitive, magical, mythical, exotic, thus legitimating the order that was being built, from a centre more “evolved and advanced”, imposing itself on and exploring the peripheries that should be dominated and guided to “civilization”, to “modernity”.

Other than our globally asymmetric reality, thus, what unites the former colonial plundering and current illicit trafficking of cultural goods is the understanding that the history of some is worth less than those of others. This allows for this taking of works from their place of origin for their commercialization today as it allowed it in the past for other reasons. Therefore, to combat the modern problem and repair the injustices of the one of yesterday, what we must do is to fight both the world’s disparities regarding wealth, law and stability, and also the distinct value given to different people across the globe. Enormous as the first might seem, and insignificant as the second, they are both equally important roots of the problem and confronting each of them is an equally important part of the solution of this problem of our present that has origins in our past.

Vitória Acerbi

CHRISTOFOLETTI, Rodrigo. (org.) O tráfico ilícito de bens culturais e a repatriação como reparação histórica. In: CHRISTOFOLETTI, Rodrigo. (org.). Bens culturais e relações internacionais: o patrimônio como espelho do soft power. Editora Universitária Leopoldianum: Santos, 2017. pp. 113-132.
UNESCO. Fight illicit trafficking, Return & Restitution of Cultural Property. Available at:
ICOM International Observatory on Illicit Traffic in Cultural Goods. Available at: https://www.obs-traffic.

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