Society & Culture & Entertainment Education

How Customs Agents Work

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The seized pieces had been shipped, packed in newspapers and towels, in these wooden chests. Storage facilities are not designed for electronics. Then we battled our various cameras (such is the electronic age that although between us we had 3 digital and 2 analog cameras, in the final analysis only one worked through the whole session) and worked out a numbering system so we could cue the individual photographs into my descriptions of the pieces and the hour was nearly up.

Actually we worked for most of the day, but within the allotted hour we did get photographs taken and detailed descriptions done of the first few stolen artifacts. I was also pleased to hear that contact had been made with the Salvadoran embassy and that the process of repatriation had been started.

The pieces will (eventually) go to the new National Museum in San Salvador, but the business of trying to preserve the past of all of the countries of the Americas in the face of looters, dealers, collectors and museums that claim their right to buy, own, and display looted artifacts is greater than the right of the countries and their peoples to their own heritage, continues. US Customs works heroically to help these countries protect their national heritage, but the general unwillingness of the US judiciary to prosecute stolen art/artifact cases both because of the clumsiness of the manner in which the stolen arts legislation works and because of pressure from special interests, makes it very difficult.

Dealers in looted antiquities advertise openly in the US, in all the media, including Web sites which otherwise deal with the legitimate issues in archaeology and cultural heritage. The situation is grave and grows graver by the day: there is not an unlooted Maya site left. Much of Peru’s past has been bulldozed for the art galleries and the living rooms of the wealthy in the United State, Europe and Japan. Ditto Guatemala, Honduras, Costa Rica, Colombia, etc. This sad scenario is echoed in every country in the world as their history and prehistory falls victim to First World employed looters and dealers. At least these few pieces of El Salvador’s cultural heritage will return home to be enjoyed by all and to educate both Salvadorans and tourists of the destruction wrought by the ancient art market.

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