On the Trail of the Tomb Robbers
Once in a while a television programme can make such an impression that things actually change. We saw this in the world of illicit antiquities when Peter Watson's 1997 exposé of dodgy dealing at Sotheby's led to a multimillion pound review of the auction house's methods, and to the end of their sales of classical antiquities in London. Now we have seen it again, in Sweden, because in February Swedish television's Channel 10 screened an equally powerful investigation entitled On the Trail of the Tomb Robbers. It made an impact on the general public, dealers and museums, and even the government. Because of the programme, codes of conduct have been drawn up, policies changed, international investigations launched and the Swedish government has begun the process of preparing legislation which would lead to their signing the 1970 UNESCO convention.
The hour-long broadcast was based on the work of graduate student Staffan Lundén of the University of Gothenburg, and produced by Johan Brånstad of Swedish Television. It aired as part of a series, Striptease, which generally attracts an audience of 10 per cent of the Swedish population. The broadcast also generated massive coverage elsewhere - particularly in news media where it featured hourly on the radio, and was covered on the main evening television bulletin, as well as in lead articles in major newspapers.
One of the main tenets of the programme was that, since Sweden has not signed the 1970 UNESCO convention, it is not illegal to import or sell there antiquities which have been illegally excavated or exported from their countries of origin. Lundén and Brånstad showed during the course of their documentary what the shocking realities of this situation are, and contrasted it very effectively with the strict restraints the Swedish government has imposed on the destruction of their own archaeological heritage, including the banning of metal detectors under threat of a 4-year prison sentence. They made extensive use of hidden cameras, through which we heard and saw truly astounding indictments from dealers and museum professionals, and also travelled the world to show the destruction looting is causing on the ground in areas like Peru, Italy and Thailand.
Dynasty and the Buddhas
During a good-natured discussion with a potential buyer, filmed on hidden camera, two dealers from a Swedish firm called Dynasty explained exactly how they smuggled Buddhas from Thailand and Burma: in their suitcases. Specializing in wooden Buddhas (since the metal ones would show up on airport security X-ray) they told how 'you stuff them in your bag and hope for the best'. These scenes were juxtaposed with interviews with Thai archaeologists, explaining the significance and importance of such artefacts to Thai history, and with a Thai Buddhist monk at a village temple from which a Buddha had recently been stolen. Such arguments carried little weight for the dealers, who reasoned that although Thai people see these objects as sacred artefacts, to them they are saleable works of art.
The atmosphere became rather less convivial when Swedish Television confronted the dealers and attempted to question them about what they had unknowingly revealed. In a formal response, the Dynasty dealers later said they had been attempting to lighten the conversation by joking when referring to smuggling the items they sell.
The ambassador and his collection
Ulf Lewin (Fig. 1), former Swedish ambassador to Guatemala, Ecuador and, more recently, Peru (until Feb 2000), has been a keen collector of pre-Columbian antiquities for 30 years, and has a genuine interest in South American history. But the programme focused attention on whether he had illegally exported items from his extensive collections for donation and sale to museums and antiquities dealers in Sweden, and whether diplomatic bags had been used to smuggle them out. In question were objects he sold to the Swedish Ethnographic Museum when he was secretary at the Swedish Embassy in Bogota, Colombia during 1968-69. Other objects in salesrooms in Stockholm also came from his collections, according to sales staff, who claimed to have seen Lewin's collections, and remembered them as much larger than the ambassador implied and also recalled Lewin being much keener to sell them for profit than he claimed. Interviews with a clearly flustered Lewin were inter-cut with scenes of Peruvian archaeologist Walter Alva (Fig. 3). Alva took the crew through the looted landscapes of Cerro Cavacho and Sipán (see CWC Issue 4), where they filmed countless lunar craters and shattered pots left by looters, who are estimated to have destroyed thousands of ancient graves and evidence. The images showed the reality of what Alva called the 'murder of culture'.
This strand of the investigation sparked an international scandal, with Latin-American media dubbing Lewin the 'looter-ambassador'. Reactions in Sweden from the embassies of Peru, Ecuador and Colombia led to the launch of an enquiry by the Swedish Department of Foreign Affairs into Lewin's alleged smuggling of archaeological artefacts from Colombia. The results of their investigation appeared this summer and concluded that Lewin could not be accused of any wrong-doing since he had acted as part of his job, with the knowledge and consent of the ambassador, and that he had obtained oral permission from Colombian authorities. The Peruvian authorities, unsatisfied with the report have apparently referred the case to UNESCO, and follow-up interviews were broadcast in November with Colombian archaeologists who considered the report a scandal and denied that permissions had been given. The follow-up also presented letters indicating that two other persons (one now ambassador in another country) at the Swedish embassy in 1970-72 had helped a Swedish national acquire and export archaeological material from Colombia. One of the letters speaks of the problems of associated with arranging transport for a crate of objects which it is illegal to export and another strongly suggests that disrespect for other countries' laws on export of cultural objects was widespread amongst Swedish diplomats.
Museums, unprovenanced antiquities and the government
The documentary also addressed the large numbers of unprovenanced antiquities purchased by museums in Sweden, using the case of the Morgantina acroliths (see CWC Issue 3) to highlight the controversy and underlying archaeological destruction associated with such acquisitions.
At the private Museum of East Asian Art in the small town of Ulricehamn, the Director's official story of how he acquired artefacts for the collection - from old collections, or sales in Sweden, USA and England - changed significantly when he chatted informally, unaware that he was being filmed (Fig. 2). He pointed to many items amongst the exhibits and explained how he himself smuggled them from China, using cigarettes and cash as bribes and being careful 'not to buy anything too big to put in his pocket or hand-luggage'. Particularly tricky to get out of the country was the large terracotta funerary horse which took pride of place in the gallery. In response to the programme the Director stated that in his staggeringly indiscrete descriptions of his smuggling activities he could only have been referring to 'a few items that I brought with me by mistake'. The Museum had been proposed for the European Museum of the Year award, but did not win, following the Director's revelations.
At the state Museum of Mediterranean Antiquities the investigators were allowed access to acquisition records and demonstrated that quantities of unprovenanced antiquities were being purchased. They focused on an unprovenanced Apulian fish-plate bought from Sotheby's which was identical to one which they were able to identify in the documents Peter Watson used for his investigation into unethical dealings at the auction house. It emerged that the piece was consigned, along with 20 other items, by Robin Syme's Swiss company in 1983. When confronted with the likely dubious origin of this piece, and asked about the museum's continued purchase of unprovenanced material the museum's spokesperson suggested that 'one has to ignore moral scruples to enrich the collection' and argued that government directives for museum acquisition compelled museums to continue to add to collections by acquiring even unprovenanced material.
When interviewed, however, Marita Ulvskog, Minister for Culture, strongly denied that this was the case. She was less clear cut when it came to the question of Sweden's continued refusal to sign international conventions to protect cultural property saying that, while the Swedish government was in theory keen to sign the 1970 UNESCO Convention, they would only consider doing so when sure they could fulfil the necessary conditions, and preferably when Denmark and Norway do so also. The issue did not seem a high priority and the Minister admitted that it had not been discussed for 30 years. It appears to have become more of a priority in the aftermath of Lundén and Brånstad's exposé, since the Department for Culture has indicated that the legislation for signing the UNESCO convention will be put to the Swedish Parliament in Spring 2002, although a decision on UNIDROIT must wait until new laws on good faith purchases are decided.
In the wake of the programme, a temporary ban on acquisitions was imposed on a number of state museums (including the Museum of Mediterranean Antiquities) and a Code of Ethics for museums, based on the ICOM code, was quickly drafted.
Lundén and Brånstad's investigation demonstrates once again the impact that a well-researched and well-crafted media investigation can make. It used such powerful images to get its message across that it is difficult to decide which leaves the most lasting impression. Perhaps it was the sight of the Queen of Sweden opening a new exhibition at the Ulricehamn Museum, unaware that the Director in charge of her welcoming committee had smuggled many of the exhibits from China using the sleaziest of methods. Perhaps it was the contrast between footage of meticulous excavations of Viking metalworking scraps by Swedish archaeologists (who struggle, and are obliged by law, to protect even the poorest objects of Swedish origin) and the images of devastation from other archaeological sites abroad. Or perhaps it was the sight of a Stockholm dealer explaining on hidden-camera that the gouges on the back of a Roman statue (bought from Sotheby's, having been consigned to auction by Giacomo Medici in 1986) were probably made by a mechanical digger when it was illegally excavated by tombrobbers.
For me, however, the most powerful moment was when a Thai Buddhist monk, devastated by the theft of the Buddha statue which was part of his living religion asked, 'These Westerners who are buying our statuettes . . . what on earth do they do with them?'. Cut to the dealers from Dynasty explaining that Buddhas are very collectible and particularly saleable to museums, but also to young people: 'They are very trendy'. Thanks to this excellent programme it is to be hoped that more collectors - young or old, institutional or private - will have a clearer idea of the issues surrounding the trade in illicit antiquities and may realize that 'trendy' it isn't.
First posted March 2001; Page design updated September 2006