The right of Man to know his past must be upheld by law

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Last week, a debonair gentleman named Jonathan Tokeley-Parry went down for six years in jail. A self-styled "restorer" of antiquities, he had been convicted of handling carvings and statuary looted from tombs in Egypt. In England, there is no law against buying stolen antiquities abroad. Tokely-Parry's mistake was to receive the objects - well knowing that they had been looted for him by illegal diggers in the Saqqara necropolis - on British territory.

But this was one lonely success in the struggle - mostly vain - to dam the broadening torrent of looted and stolen archaeological treasures now pouring into the antiquities market of the Western world. If there is one main source for this torrent, it is the outbreak of low-level wars, mostly in Asia, which lead to the collapse of civil order. Warlords, freelance militias and ordinary villagers have swarmed in with bulldozers, explosives or merely shovels to plunder archaeological sites and empty local museums. It is happening in Afghanistan, in the nations of ex-Yugoslavia, in Cambodia, in Lebanon and in half-a-dozen other countries.

As Geraldine Norman wrote a few years ago in The Independent, "80 per cent of all antiquities coming on to the market have been illegally excavated and smuggled from their countries of origin." The disaster to human knowledge resides in this: that they have been stripped of their context. A Greek statuette, a Roman gold necklace, a Kushan silver coin bought in the Peshawar bazaars, may each be a beautiful object - but object is all it is. Without the record of exactly where they lay, in what level and position and associated with what other artefacts, they tell nothing about the past. They are no more than pages ripped out of the historical record to light a little fire of greed.

In Britain, as in some other Western countries, the mood among professional archaeologists is moving from helpless horror to rage. They want to fight back. They cannot restore law and order in Afghanistan. But they can, they believe, do something about the other end of the pipeline: the dealers and auction houses in London, New York or Los Angeles whose lack of scruple keeps the illegal antiquities market going.

There was a time, not so many years ago, when dealers and archaeologists rubbed along quite amiably together. The market used the excavators for advice and authentication. The excavators - including some of the greatest names in archaeology - were not above buying the odd figurine or vase themselves. But those days are over now. For a new generation of radical archaeologists, the dealers have become the enemies of knowledge, the subverters of scientific integrity.

The other day, I heard an archaeologist ask a colleague if he was entitled to refuse to go on teaching one of his students. He had just discovered that this student planned to join one of the London auction houses after taking his degree. The reply was No, but a very reluctant No. If he broke off his teaching on those grounds, he might land up in court. But it was morally agonising, the colleague agreed, to equip somebody to undermine the fundamental ethics of his own profession.

Episodes like that show what a head of steam is building up. The media have picked up this mood, and begun to flay the dealers without mercy. Sotheby's has recently been battered by press and television for handling a whole string of antiquities with murky provenances or none, like the mighty Sevso treasure of late-Roman silver. The Getty Museum in California had trouble with a Greek statue which was either a fake or an illegal export or perhaps both, and then hit further storms over an "Aphrodite" which the Sicilians said had been stolen from the island. After that, the Getty announced that it would never again purchase objects with no clear provenance - and promptly bought the Fleischman Collection of just that nature.

The people at the sharp end of this conflict are the restorers - or "conservator- restorers" as they call themselves. The days are long gone when this job was a matter of brushing off mud and gluing bits together. It is now a craft requiring a level of scientific expertise which few commercial research laboratories can match. And with the new skills came a new degree of commitment to archaeology. The mission today is not just to restore and conserve but to help reconstruct the whole context from which the object emerged.

In the past, it was these experts who were used by the dealers to restore and authenticate antiquities in preparation for sale. But now they are in revolt. Kathryn Walker Tubb, a conservator-restorer at the Institute of Archaeology in London, has sketched out in the journal Art, Antiquity and the Law some of the moral dilemmas colleagues now face. If a conservator accepts a contract from a private dealer, she writes, there can be an immediate conflict of loyalties. "To process artefacts knowing that their value on the market is being enhanced, that their contextual information has been destroyed and their provenance is being further obscured ... cannot be right." More ticklish still, the conservator may find evidence - traces of soil or insect deposits - which give unwelcome hints about where the object was really found and who it really belongs to. What is he or she to do then?

The dealer or collector has bought the conservator's loyalty, in theory. But what about the rights of the real owner - perhaps a foreign Department of Antiquities? If the conservator keeps quiet about this new evidence, is that not in itself abetting a criminal act? "Normal considerations of right and wrong would seem to have undergone boundary shifts."

And "the trade" will usually lean on the conservator to restore an object - tart it up to look good - rather than to conserve it or extract information about the past from it. But the worst temptation is the constant begging and nudging of the dealers to provide authentication - that precious scrap of paper that pronounces "This bowl is genuine Thracian silverware of the second century BC" and multiplies the sale price.

There are still conservators willing to do this, even when they sense tomb-robbers off-stage or privately smell a fake. They form what one scholar calls "the final stage in the laundering process which transforms looted antiquities into art commodities". And the growing poverty of archaeological departments is even easier to exploit.

As the head of one laboratory put it, when asked why he had provided dating for African terracottas whose source was as transparent as mud, "it's a business. From our point of view, doing authenticities earns money for us and since we live in Mrs Thatcher's Britain, we have to earn money".

The collector George Ortiz is scornful about all this ethical fuss. He argues that if it were not for the market, many antiquities would simply be thrown away or destroyed when they were found. Others say that forcing the big dealers to boycott pretty things with no provenance will make no difference whatever; tomb-robbers will go on robbing even if they earn less by it, and collectors will go on furtively collecting.

Both these theories are mostly eyewash. But even if they were true, things have grown so desperate that action against the illegal trade is the only option. London is now the smuggler's capital, and the law on receiving stolen property must at once be extended to cover foreign countries. The war of the archaeologists against the dealers is a righteous war. If it's a choice between long-term public knowledge and short-term private greed, then knowledge must be helped to win.

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