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London a Safe Heaven For Heritage Looters 


10 November 2004




  Prof. Robin Coningham

NINETY per cent of the major archaeological sites in Iran and Pakistan have been looted and the spoils are flooding into London, a leading British archaeologist said yesterday.

After completing a six-year survey of the ancient sites in the region, Robin Coningham, Professor of Archaeology at the University of Bradford, said: “Although the illegal destruction occurs abroad, much of the looted material is channelled here to Britain and is sold in London. The best material is coming to London.”

His research found that Iran is being plundered of treasures dating from 3,000BC to AD500, and Pakistan is being robbed of antiquities created between 500BC and AD400.

“Are we really happy to do nothing as the cultural heritage of the developing world is asset-stripped while we serve as a market stall for objects of dubious provenance?” Professor Coningham said.
There are up to 100 London dealers specialising in Asian material. Although Professor Coningham acknowledges the responsible individuals who sell objects from bona fide collections, he is alarmed by the amount of “new” material without any excavation details: “A lot of it looks pretty fresh and does not have any archaeological provenance,” he said.

Once the antiquities are in Britain, anyone selling them is operating within British law. Anyone can buy an object legally through an auction house or dealer, as long as they show due diligence.
Professor Coningham was speaking after surveying sites in Pakistan and Iran in collaboration with the universities of Peshawar and Tehran, and with the backing of the Royal Geographical Society, the British Institute of Persian Studies and the British Academy.

They found 18 new archaeological sites dating to the first millennium BC in the Hindu Kush region, of which 14 had been damaged by illicit excavations, and more than 120 sites dating back to 8,000BC in the Tehran plain, of which most had suffered recent damage.

Neil Brodie, co-ordinator of the Illicit Antiquities Research Centre at the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research at Cambridge University, estimates that up to 20 per cent of the material being offered in London does not have an archaeological provenance.

Part of the problem, Professor Coningham said, was that anyone could wander into the British Museum or the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) with an object and get an appraisal.
“It’s a public service,” he said, “but museums are giving information and therefore providing an academic provenance.”

The V&A emphasised that it did not offer “a valuation service” and the British Museum said that it was “extremely vigilant” when asked to examine any antiquity. “If it is an object that obviously has no provenance, we would regard it as highly suspicious and would report it to the police,” a spokesman said.

Dr Brodie called on the Government to extend to Pakistan and Iran the emergency legislation passed last year to protect Iraqi antiquities. That legislation forces anyone in possession of such an object to prove it came out legally before UN sanctions were imposed on Iraq. He said: “Since the emergency legislation, Iraqi antiquities have virtually disappeared from the London market. Before that, there was a whole load of Iraqi antiquities in London. It’s the only thing that works.”

His colleague in Cambridge, Jenny Doole, a research associate, described the lost ancient heritage of Iran and Pakistan as a disaster. She said: “Without context and provenance, it is virtually impossible to reconstruct any useful understanding of the cultures from which the looted objects have come.”



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