Tomb Raiding 101

Where should I sell my stolen artifacts?

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Video-game maker Eidos will soon release the 10th-anniversary edition of its classic game Tomb Raider, starring nerd temptress Lara Croft. Tomb raiders work in real life, too: Last October, they led archaeologists to a site in Egypt that is still yielding discoveries. How do real-life tomb raiders operate?

Secretly, illegally, and all over the world. “Tomb raider” is really just a glamorous way of describing an unlicensed archaeologist. Anyone who wants to dig in Egypt must first go through the arduous process of getting official permission. The authorities demand an explicit description of any project, proof that the diggers are with a university or museum, and a list of everyone who will be working on the site. The license request goes to the Supreme Council of Antiquities, a government agency that oversees all excavation projects. If you try to dig without the council’s permission, you’re breaking the law—so “tomb raiders” might be opportunists looking to sell their findings, or they might be serious excavators who simply can’t get permission for a dig.

The guys who are just trying to pawn off their artifacts on the black market sometimes don’t even bother with the digging. It’s often easier to raid established excavations for valuable artifacts. (An academic team might leave its site under the eye of a single guard for months at a time.) But more industrious tomb raiders can make their own major discoveries. In the late 19th century, a batch of ancient items was traced back to the Abdel-Rassouls, a prominent family living in Luxor. The family had discovered a tomb where the mummies of many Egyptian pharaohs had been stored in 1,000 B.C. In a more recent case, robbers arrested last year led archaeologists to discover the remains of three ancient royal dentists near Cairo.

Once tomb raiders get their hands on an artifact, they have to smuggle it out of the country however they can. Items often pass through a series of well-connected middlemen who know art dealers in major hot spots like Switzerland and Japan. In southern Iraq, looters tend to network with other men from the same tribe, then smuggle items across the porous borders into Iran, Turkey, or Jordan. A little creativity doesn’t hurt: In 1997, British restorer Jonathan Tokeley-Parry was convicted for smuggling Egyptian artifacts on behalf of a New York art dealer. His method: dipping the artifacts in liquid plastic to make them look like cheap souvenirs.

Then they have to sell the stolen material. International agreements make this very difficult: At the 1970 UNESCO convention, member nations pledged to halt the trade of all cultural artifacts—stolen or not—that were extracted after a certain date. (The United States, under pressure from powerful art dealers, didn’t ratify the treaty until 1983; some countries, like Germany, still haven’t signed.) Artifact smugglers can try to circumvent these rules by fabricating documentation. Tokeley-Parry and his accomplice, for example, pretended that the imported contraband belonged to a pre-existing collection. They wrote up fake labels for the pieces and then made the labels look old by dipping them in tea and heating them in an oven. But the simplest way is to say the item came from a country that’s not as strict.

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The Explainer thanks Patty Gerstenblith of DePaul University and Emily Teeter of the University of Chicago.