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June 15, 2021

Sipán and the Getty

I’ve received some really nice feedback on my interview on Stealing History with Jordan Harbinger, broadcast on his podcast in March. “Very interesting and enlightening,” someone wrote to me from Germany.

One listener wrote on Twitter that the interview reminded him of an exhibit on ancient Latin American metalworking at the Getty in late 2017 which, I confess, I did not know about. (I was living in Israel at the time.) Judging from photographs, it looks like the exhibit included the Sipán backflap — yes, the one seized by the FBI in a car trunk in Philadelphia in 1997 — and several other artifacts looted from the Sipán tombs of northern Peru and shuffled through the global illicit antiquities market. How intriguing. These items must have been loaned from the museum in Lambayeque, Peru, the Museo Tumbas Reales de Sipán, where all the artifacts looted by the Bernal brothers and apprehended by U.S. and Peruvian police are housed. The rest of that museum — and the museum’s reason for being — is devoted to the archaeologically excavated artifacts from Sipán, placing them in cultural context, and explaining how the archaeological process can expand our knowledge of the ancient past. And how looting destroys that knowledge.

I’ll give the Getty the benefit of the doubt and assume that they explained all this and made clear the difference between looting and archaeology. If they did, kudos to them. The Getty once had a shameful record on buying the products of plunder, but, like some other institutions, it has been chastened by lawsuits and investigative journalists and has tried to make amends. (Felch and Frammolino have the goods on this in Chasing Aphrodite.) The tone of displays of ancient objects in U.S. museums has shifted in the last 10 years, in part because of the scandals at the Getty and other institutions and in part because a much bigger share of the public now understands what happens when museums buy antiquities without a documented, transparent chain of ownership. People understand that it stimulates looting. They understand that source countries will demand them back. And if an ancient artifact that has appeared recently on the market does not have an archaeological pedigree, it’s either looted or it’s fake. Hence my advice to museums and collectors: don’t buy antiquities. Just don’t. Find something else to collect.

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