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Trashing the past

Who we are and where we came from is a story articulated by the Whistler Museum but shaped by the community

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Cultural looting in Iraq was easily foreseeable, this time around. In an August 2003 article for Archaeology magazine, Neil Brodie raised a more pertinent question. "Why has no concerted international action been taken to block the trade and sale of material looted from archaeological sites and cultural institutions during wartime?"

"A progressive society does not bury the past," says Whistler Museum Curator, Kerry Clark. "We look at the past because we can learn from it."

Around the world, the past is being dug up. Excavated, in fact, in the dark of night, by looters with shovels and pickaxes, and secreted to illicit antiquities dealers. Being dealt in the illegal international market usually means an artifact is lost forever from the public record. A stolen artifact keeps its origins to itself – the need to hide it from the law means the public may never know of it, its location or the circumstances of its unearthing. It also means that the artifact’s lineage may be lied about, with forged papers and records of excavation, sales and provenance, in order to facilitate its acquisition.

The looting that fuels the black market in antiquities is not only prevalent in sites of international conflict, but has been documented in the past five years in the "civilized" world. Widespread art heists from French chateaux prompted Interpol to release a CDROM showcasing some 14,000 stolen works of art in 1999. The rip-off of Etruscan treasures from the Lazio region of Italy led to the conviction of an Italian amateur archeologist and lecturer who had amassed 30,000 pieces in his contraband collection in 2002. Last year, charges were pressed against looters of artifacts excavated from Melbourne, Australia. Alberta’s dinosaur badlands suffer an ongoing loss of fossils and bones.

Arguably, these treasures are part of the public domain, part of our collective heritage; like water, like the genetic coding of living things. One of the most volatile wars being fought in the 21st century, though, is over ownership of this kind of intellectual and cultural property. Art, antiquities and archives are being turned into private playthings; being acquired for private collections.

Sotheby’s auction house has posted record sales in the past several years, despite the nosedive the economy has taken and major lawsuits, including a price-fixing charge that convicted them of conspiring with rival, Christies.

This robust market shows not so much a disdain for historic treasures, but an insatiable lust for them. As the world’s rich and poor become increasingly polarized, the market for such treasures is a flashback to the 15th century when "cabinets of curiosities" were common in homes of the elite, an opportunity to show off one’s worldliness, one’s savvy understanding of modern science, one’s wealth and status.