LOOKING FOR A TOMB
WE SAT UNDER a tree in the moonlight chewing coca leaves, a heap of shovels and metal poles resting on the ground next to us. We chased down the coca's weedy taste with cane liquor known as llonque and talked in whispers so as not to awaken dogs at the adobe farmhouses across these fields on the south coast of Peru, where workers slept after a day harvesting cotton. Waves washing onto the beach a few miles away sounded like a distant sigh. A stone's throw in front of us, lying in the moonlight like a huge, slumbering animal, rose the pale burial pyramid built by the Incas five centuries ago which these three men were about to assault.
"La coca está dulce," said one. The coca is sweet. They will have luck tonight.
They were huaqueros, a uniquely Peruvian word for a global phenonomenon, professional grave robbers. The leader of the group was known to everyone as Robin, a nickname he took from the Batman comics he liked as a boy and which stuck through his young, successful career digging up the remains of three millennia of history along the cool, arid coast of Peru. Robin did not know if it was luck or natural gift or a combination of the two, but he had developed a knack for finding the gorgeous textiles that ancient Peruvians wove, wore, and took to their graves. He had a sharp instinct for which of the thousands of eroded mud-brick burial pyramids, known as huacas in the indigenous language Quechua, would yield marketable artifacts and which only bones, worthless bits of ceramics, andtattered rags. Dealers and collectors contacted him because he found the good stuff: delicate, exquisitely designed weavings in a galaxy of colors that, centuries ago, were considered beautiful enough to accompany the dead to the underworld and today, for the very best ones, could fetch more than a Renoir or a Matisse.
Wearing dark sweatpants and T-shirts, Robin and his buddies talked about strange and beautiful things they had found over the years--perfectly preserved pots, color-spangled weavings, piles of bones and skulls. Robin told of jars in the shape of animals, a clown, a corncob. Looting a tomb, the three of them once found an Inca weaving that bore a design of a condor with outstretched wings, directly facing the viewer with penetrating, human eyes. But when they picked it up, the weaving was so delicate it fell apart.1
They talked about the fickle spirits of the dead that can bring them luck or frustration. The talked of the huaca as a living force with jealousies and resentments, moments of generosity and fits of spite.
"If you act greedy, the huaca won't give you anything. You take too much, and it will close up and never give you anything again," said Robin.
"Sometimes it helps you out, sometimes it won't give you anything. But it warns you. It speaks to you," said his friend Remi, a tall, narrow man with a grave air.
At twenty-three, Robin had been digging up tombs almost every night since his early teens. He earned a little money on the side driving a taxi. He looked a lot like the boxer Oscar De La Hoya and had the body to go with it; looting kept him in great shape, he said.
"We're going to walk up the middle of the huaca, start at the top and work our way down. And keep your voice down," Robin whispered to me, as if discussing a military attack. I wore dark clothes, as instructed, and I knew the rules: pictures were allowed but no flash, and if you must talk, whisper. He had had some close calls but was never arrested, and he didn't want to start tonight.
I met Robin through a veteran grave robber named Rigoberto, whom in turn I met through a friend of mine who collected antiquities in Lima. Robin and Rigoberto were neighbors in Pampa Libre, a village of a few hundred people north of Lima where the local economy had been based for generations on the looting of ancient burial grounds in the hills nearby. Those cemeteries, never rich to begin with, were yielding fewer and fewer treasures and so, having exhausted the community's principal source of revenue, its young men were forced to range further and further afield to meet the demands of their buyers. Carrying knapsacks and cell phones, they took buses up and down the coast and built up contacts with looters in other villages to form digging teams and split the proceeds. The huaqueros of Pampa Libre were known as businesslike, honest, and adaptable to anyplace and digging environment. Chimbote, Ica, Casma, Nazca, Arequipa-- they had worked everywhere. Rigoberto, now in his early forties, had developed strange lung ailments that no one could explain and his bones felt weak, so, at the urging of his teenaged son, he had given up grave robbing. He was reduced to selling ceramic pots to tourists in the streets of Lima.
Robin, on the other hand, was still strong and enthusiastic, and he loved his job. "I dig whenever I get the chance," he told me. In four years in Peru, I couldn't remember meeting anyone so happy about his work. It took some persuading, but he agreed to let me come along with him and his buddies that evening.
To tell others about how the antiquities trade works at its source, you first have to see grave robbers in action. You must look deeply and unflinchingly down their holes, watch the violent and nauseating act of the living evicting the dead from their graves. You have to become a witness to a crime, and you have to risk arrest.
Robin and I met that day on Jirón Leticia, a street in the center of Lima with a reputation for muggings and assaults. I walked past grimy mechanic shops, street vendors selling stolen radios and mirrors, taxis pushed up against the sidewalk with their hoods open, a man with his head in the engine and another on his back underneath. Robin stood on the corner waiting for me, a knapsack over his shoulders.
"So the pickpockets didn't get you. Good. Let's go," he said. We walked around a corner to a cavernous garage and boarded a bus whose engines chugged to life, and the bus drove out into the morning sun and headed south.
The Pan-American Highway makes its way past tidy, middle-class neighborhoods and shopping centers, ramshackle districts of street stalls and half-finished cinderblock structures and shantytowns climbing the hillsides, before winding out into a landscape of sand dunes, billboards, and green irrigated fields, a jagged knife of mountains on the left and ocean on the right. The contrasts that define Peru are all around you, wealth juxtaposed with poverty, mountains with ocean, desert with farm.
As we headed south, the ruins of the ancient shrine of Pachacamac appeared, a complex of mud-brick walls, terraces, and enclosures rising on a hillside above the coastal plain, a few tour buses parked nearby. Pachacamac was to pre-Conquest Peru what Delphi was to Greece or Santiago de Compostela to medieval Europe, a sacred shrine that drew pilgrims from all over the realm and the site of an idol whose oracular utterances were relayed to the crouching faithful by the altar's priests. The Incas told the first Spanish chroniclers in the 1500s that before being allowed to climb the shrine to its uppermost sanctuary and hear the idol speak, pilgrims weresupposed to have fasted for a year. No one can survive a year without eating, of course, but the point was that people endured a once-in-a-lifetime regime of privation and sacrifice before the oracle would deign to speak to them. What was so extraordinary about the Pachacamac cult was how long it lasted: some 1,300 years, through the rise and fall of successive indigenous Andean cultures and civilizations until the last of them, the Incas. Pilgrims were still fasting and trekking to Pachacamac from across the Andes when, in Tumbes in the far north of the Inca realm, the Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro landed on May 16, 1532, with a few hundred men and written permission from Queen Isabella of Spain to conquer the empire they knew lay to the south. Neither Pachacamac nor the Incas could survive the Spanish onslaught. The conquistador's brother, Hernando Pizarro, and his men marched into the sanctuary in January 1533, evicted the priests, threw the wooden idol to the ground, and spent a month ransacking the shrine's rooms and platforms in a fruitless search for gold.2
"With greed and yearning they reached Pachacamac, where they had heard news that there would be great treasures," wrote the Spanish priest Fray Martín de Murúa in about 1590. After the conquerors left, "this memorable temple was deserted and uninhabited."3
"No one has ever found anything at Pachacamac. All the huaqueros try, but there is nothing to find or it's so deep underground that we can't reach it," he said. "The first time we tried, the guards came over right away and chased us out. The second time it was at night, and we entered around the back side over by the pueblo joven (shantytown), and we started to sink our poles into the ground. We sank one, two, maybe three poles into the ground, and then the night guards came over and chased us away. Some of the guys went back and sank more poles into the ruins, but they never found a thing.
"Some huacas are bad. They don't give you anything."
"What kinds of things are you looking for when you loot?" I asked.
"We don't look for ceramics anymore because they're hard to sell, except for the very best pieces. A really good pot can sell for $500 or so. But we don't get many orders for ceramics, I guess because too much of it entered the market at once," he said. "What people want these days is textiles and more textiles, or metalwork, although there isn't much metalwork in the places I work. So we look for textiles."
His assessment of the market astonished me. It was almost identical to the one I heard from art dealers and collectors in pre-Columbian art in the United States: textiles currently drove the pre-Columbian antiquities market, fine metalwork also had a niche, and ceramics were definitely out after experiencing a long glut, though top-quality pottery still sold well. This looter, who had never finished high school, never set foot outside Peru orused a computer, was completely in tune with the demand side of the looting industry.
We got off at Chilca, a sad, deracinated town of truckstops and half-finished houses jumbled out along the highway, a place best known to Peruvians as the frequent epicenter of earthquakes, built as it is on a geological pressure point that keeps the town in constant danger of being wiped from the earth at a single stroke. Robin led me through dusty lots and alleys to a small house that looked recently constructed of Eternit cinderblocks and corrugated-metal roofing. Inside were a few mismatched chairs on a dirt floor, a tattered poster with a calendar and a beer ad, a version of The Last Supper in dark velvet hanging over an uneven table. This was the home of Remi, Robin's best buddy in looting and a lanky man who, at twenty-one, still had an adolescent awkwardness. As he greeted us and tended a few chickens in the yard, I could tell Remi was nervous about meeting me. His uncle, a lifelong looter, had been arrested one night recently along with six others at an old Inca graveyard across the highway, where they had found many small weavings over the years. The police had come with a television crew, and under a harsh white TV spotlight, the police handcuffed and took them all to jail in the provincial capital of Cañete, where they languished for a few days until one of their buyers hired a lawyer to persuade (or perhaps bribe) a judge to release them. The buyer's motive was clear: he was losing his suppliers. Robin had been with Remi's uncle in the graveyard that night, but he and another looter managed to evade the police and walked all night to Pucusana, a village on the southern outskirts of Lima, one of the unlikely escapes that gave Robin his reputation as a master grave robber with a Houdini-like ability to dodge arrest. Remi was apprehensive about meeting another journalist. His uncle stayed in his little room off the chicken coop, refusing to emerge or let me see him.
Soon the third looter came around, a deeply tanned man of twenty-five with a shy smile whose name was Luis, but everyone called him Harry after the Clint Eastwood character that he liked. Harry was born high in the Andes in the city of Huaraz. He ran away from home in his early teens because his father beat him and came to the coast where he fell in with the Pampa Libre people and had been busting into tombs every night since. That afternoon the four of us walked for miles out of town, past brick kilns the size of houses, soccer pitches, fig groves, and poultry barns, out to a desolate hill overlooking a wide, scallop-shaped bay dotted with fishing boats.
People had once lived on this hill. As the huaqueros led me up, I could make out a network of mortarless stone walls with narrow lanes running between them, a kind of rough grid running over the crest. These walls had stood mostly undisturbed until about 1990, said Remi, who had lived in the area all his life.
"Then the huaqueros came," he said with a grin. Now the walls were inruins. Jawbones, pelvises, and skulls bleached by the sun lay everywhere, and gaping holes showed where the looters had scraped out tombs like backroom dentists pulling teeth. From the simple objects and ordinary textiles that they pulled from this hill, they deduced that it had been inhabited by Inca commoners. But if it had been a graveyard, a village, or something else, we would never know because this place, perhaps overlooked by archaeologists, looked like a tornado had come through. Looters did not return to the place now because there was nothing left. The tombs were all dug up, the place tapped out. It all happened very fast and very recently, in the last two decades of the twentieth century, a period that will be remembered as one in which more Andean historical heritage was lost than in the previous four centuries, a time when looting reached a fury never before seen in this country's long history of plunder.
A few black vultures soared overhead, looking suddenly very close.
Just before nine o'clock that evening, we flagged down a bus on the highway and clambered on. We drew a lot of stares, these three Peruvian workers and me, a thirty-nine-year-old foreigner, all carrying knapsacks and loads of shovels and poles, but no one said anything before we alighted at an empty stretch of highway a few miles north of Cañete and began walking silently through fields of corn and cotton. A dog barked somewhere in the darkness, but we encountered no one as we walked along and came finally to the big tree. For three hours we sat on its gnarled roots, sucking and spitting out quids of coca and sending rivers of cane liquor roaring down our throats. There are some five thousand known huacas on the coast of Peru, some as tall as ten-story buildings and holding the tombs of monarchs, others merely a hump in the landscape where commoners were buried. These looters had gone after hundreds of them. But this huaca they preferred above all others in the area because its tombs were close to the surface, there were few houses in the immediate vicinity, and not many other looters had discovered it yet. They had heard that good textiles could be found here.
It was after midnight when they packed the plastic bottles, gathered the tools, and walked along a line of scrubby bushes toward the treeless mound of the huaca that towered over the fields and stretched a quarter of a mile wide. There was no fence of any kind around it, not even a sign.
It was risky work. The police could come and arrest them, the holes they dig could cave in and bury them alive, they could be set upon by local farmers' dogs. But the rewards were great. Made with skill and attention to detail unmatched in the ancient Americas, Peruvian textiles were used to spread ideas and information in the Andes before the Spaniards brought paper and written language. Even simple weavings could carry colorful, complex designs mixing abstract and realistic elements. Like ancientscrolls in the Middle East, textiles were crucial historical documents about life in Peru before the Conquest.
There was also the remote possibility they could find Paracas-era textiles. Named for the peninsula where some of its finest remains were found, the Paracas culture predated the Incas on the south coast of Peru by about 2,000 years, and the weavings with which the Paracas people swaddled their dead are at present some of the most coveted ancient artifacts in the world. A large, top-quality Paracas weaving can sell for half a million dollars. They are heartbreakingly beautiful mantles with semi-abstract designs of deities flying among pelicans, sharks, and hummingbirds, "some of the most magnificent cloths that the world has ever seen," as one specialist wrote in 1957.4 If the looters found any Paracas textiles at this burial mound and couldn't keep it a secret, the site would instantly become a magnet for looters from all over Peru. Paracas textiles are old, sometimes 2,500 years old, a fact that increases their value and cachet and that also means very few have survived in good condition. It also means they are very deep in the ground, requiring looters to rip through centuries of Peruvian civilization before hitting them, sometimes just above bedrock. Retrieving south-coast textiles often requires earth-moving equipment or else gangs of a dozen or more looters working for days to excavate a bowl in the ground as deep and wide as the foundation for an office building. Sometimes in remote valleys near Nazca and Ica one comes across these enormous pits in the desert, a clutch of discarded bones and shards at the bottom.
I followed Robin, Remi, and Harry up the huaca and sat on the bare, chalky surface of dried mud bricks as they got down to business. For the first hour, all they did was prospect for tombs by driving in their slender, six-foot-long steel poles, the kind used in construction to reinforce load-bearing columns, with a short, perpendicular handle welded to one end. If they hit nothing, they moved on. If the pole suddenly met no resistance, that meant it had pierced an empty pot that probably accompanied a tomb. And if the pole made a certain muffled crack, that meant it had hit a body. I began to recognize that excruciating crack of metal hitting bone, a sound that first made me recoil and soon made me feel physically sick.
After sinking their poles and making mental notes of where they hit bodies, they began to dig--fast. The speed with which they dug astounded me. In fifteen minutes, they could excavate a hole six feet deep; in half an hour, they had broken into tombs ten feet down. The tombs belonged to ordinary Inca folk, simple graves of farmers and artisans with gourds containing peanuts or bird bones, woven bags containing coca leaves, and coils of string. There were knitting instruments, broken ceramics, a small woven bag containing a clutch of pointy bones that I found out later were deerantlers, a child's tiny llama-bone flute with a string attached. I looked at this all in the moonlight, fascinated, disgusted, and saddened. They couldn't sell this stuff, and they were throwing it all away into heaps of debris.
"We know what people are buying and what they don't want. We have to leave these things because we can't sell them," said Robin.
A car drove slowly down a dirt road at the bottom of the huaca, headlights ablaze. We ducked into the emptied graves, cowering among skulls and bones until it passed.
At about 2 A.M. Harry's pole made a promising noise. The other two came over and began digging furiously. In no more than ten minutes they had dug about three feet down and shined their flashlight on a row of partly disintegrated adobe bricks. It was the outer wall of a tomb, they believed. Ten more minutes and they had dug underneath the line of bricks and up into the tomb, into which Robin could reach with his arm. He then took his shovel and scraped out everything inside: bones, tattered bits of weavings, dried corncobs and lima beans, a skull. It was a tomb all right, but he could tell it had been looted before and that there was nothing of value. When? They couldn't be sure.
"Maybe the Spaniards, in the colonial era," said Robin.
They moved on, prospecting now higher up the mound and emptying half a dozen graves. They grasped human skulls by their tufts of hair and chucked them out. They shoveled out bones, some with what looked like bits of desiccated human tissue still attached to them. I jotted in my notebook: "1,200 years ago they buried their dead here and tonight they are unburied one by one."
Remi clutched more bones and dumped them out. "Find someone who wants to buy bones and we'll be rich," he said. I liked his lack of guile, the way he used no euphemism. "We violate tombs. That's what we do for a living," he told me once.
By 4 A.M., as the moon began sinking into the hills, they finally struck something good. Robin's pole had made that crunching noise of a corpse and the soil did not seem to have been disturbed, suggesting that looters had not struck here before. He and Harry dug about nine feet straight down for half an hour. Finally they found it: a body wrapped in a weaving of red and yellow.
"Look at those colors! We've got a good one," said Robin. "Now I'm going to dig around the sides carefully so as not to damage the weaving. If you rip it out, you'll destroy it. You have to remove it very carefully or it's worthless," he said. He enjoyed telling me how they worked with clinical detail, like a mechanic describing step by step how to fix a transmission. They tossed out bones and lesser objects lying around--gourds, bits of gauze, polished stones. With the pit nearly twice his height, Robin dug anxiously and threw the dirt halfway out to where Harry and Remi shoveledit out the rest of the way. Another half hour of digging with the shovel and his hands, and Robin finally pulled the weaving free and clambered out. He held up the fabric to the flashlight and gave it to Remi, who shook it, releasing a cloud of dust.
It was indeed a lovely piece, a perfectly intact tunic in terra-cotta red, olive green, yellow, beige, and sky blue. It had probably belonged to a boy or young man who wore it in life and whose naked bones now lay at the bottom of the pit: a femur, a spine, a skull gazing up at the stars.
"Mierda, this is the best thing we've found in two weeks," said Robin.
The roosters were crowing but the sun had not yet lifted as they gathered their tools and put the weaving in a knapsack. We walked back across the fields, all of us dirty as pigs. They bathed in an irrigation ditch and dickered over how much money they might receive. Eight hundred dollars, a thousand maybe. They wouldn't call Alex, the dealer who had bailed Remi's uncle out of jail, because he was known to be cheap and probably wouldn't give them more than three hundred. No matter what, they had to sell the piece fast because the longer it was in their hands, the more danger there was that the police could come and take it from them. The risk multiplied with each hour. And if they waited until the afternoon to sell it, any buyer would think that other dealers had seen it and turned it down, that it had been "handled." That perception would automatically reduce its value.
As the sun rose behind the Andes, we flagged down a bus making the all-night trip from Cuzco to Lima and rode back to Remi's house, where the men spread the weaving on the dirt floor. They were tired but excited as they made calls with Robin's cell phone to find a buyer. By 9 A.M., they had one, a smuggler they knew only as Lucho, and asked him to come see it. Lucho received lots of calls at this time of morning from grave robbers with fresh merchandise, Robin said, and they would have to promise him that their piece would be worth the drive because he would be giving up others.
"Believe me, it's a good piece, una belleza," I heard Robin telling Lucho. "We're not going to bring you all the way down here for something that's not worth it."
That was when I had to leave. The looters told me I could not be present at the deal because Lucho might not like it. Would he be armed? I asked. No, he does not carry a weapon, but he is an important buyer and might feel uncomfortable having a stranger present, Robin explained.
They told me later that Lucho arrived before lunch in his Nissan station wagon. He loved the piece. The looters asked for $1,500 but he bargained them down to $1,000. Lucho was known for smuggling out suitcases of ancient textiles to Europe and North America in violation of Peruvian and--for artifacts bound for the United States--American law. Robin learned that the weaving, their little belleza from the pyramid thatnight, was on a plane to Chile within a few days. Peruvian antiquities bound for the United States usually go via Chile these days, while those bound for the European market typically go via Ecuador, according to smugglers. That weaving plucked from a grave in Peru likely reached the United States a few days later.
Fifty years ago, offerings at the major international antiquities-trading centers such as London, Paris, and New York were mostly limited to goods from countries in the Mediterranean basin, with a smattering of Latin American and Southeast Asian objects for the specialists. Collecting, like culture at large, was more Eurocentric than it is today.
Now the supply side in the antiquities market has gone wide. In Mali, dealers have been known to hire whole villages of two hundred or more people, arm them with hoes and shovels, and organize them in gangs to level burial mounds wholesale and take everything.5 Such plunder is to supply a taste for West African terra-cotta figures that began to develop in the West only in the late 1960s.6 In Central America, where the Maya devised writing and a sophisticated knowledge of astronomy six centuries before Galileo, looters are gradually obliterating all traces of that civilization, save two dozen or so sites under active archaeological excavation, to supply the market for gold, jade, and stone artifacts. According to two scholars researching Belize, "the overall scale of looting has, at least in the area we know best, risen dramatically" since the first major international treaty aimed at combating looting in 1970. They estimated that there were two hundred looters for every archaeologist working in that country alone, and the problem was, if anything, worse in neighboring Guatemala.7
Thomas Killion, an archaeologist at Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, has seen evidence that looters use bulldozers, backhoes, and chain saws at Mayan sites. In one case they used a chain saw to strip off the carved front of a Mayan limestone monument known as a stele, leaving the mangled rest of the stone standing. It would have been too heavy to haul out whole.
"They know enough about archaeology and ancient custom to identify the potentially rich deposits, and then they crack into them," said Killion, an affable, energetic man who spoke with more resignation than anger about his efforts to stay one step ahead of those who would ransack his study sites. Lately he had been working in the Mexican state of Veracruz, at an Olmec area that he knew had been picked through by looters. "There's a hot little market going for small, portable Olmec objects," he said with a defeated shrug.8
Cambodia ended thirty years of civil conflict with a peace agreementin 1991 and almost immediately came under unprecedented assault by the antiquities trade. Rival factions in the fighting, even the genocidal Khmer Rouge, were reported to have respected the monuments of Angkor and, despite damage from mortar shells in a few places, left them essentially intact. But not so the looters, who have been chiseling out wall carvings, hacking off limbs and heads from stone sculptures, dismantling the artistic elements from whole sections of temples, largely to feed antiquities dealers based next door in Thailand.9 When I visited ten years after the peace agreement, most of the 540 huge, stone figures lining the five causeways into the mysterious ruined city of Angkor Thom had been decapitated, their heads lopped off and carried away by smugglers who knew that heads are easy to hide, easy to transport, and easy to sell. (Some of the heads had been replaced with copies, which somehow added to the sense of loss.) In Angkor Wat, the ethereal temple in the center of the sprawling complex, barely a single free-standing statue retained its head. Cambodians told me that most of the damage had been done since the peace agreement. A complex of stone temples, cities, and canals covering seventy-five square miles, Angkor is one of the best-known ancient sites in the world, a place lavished with conservation grants and depicted on the Cambodian flag. Yet more damage was done by looters to this fascinating, captivating place in the last quarter of the twentieth century than in the previous eight centuries.10 In another eight hundred years, as historians study how the heads of Angkor ended up in Paris and Chicago, they might well conclude that people cleared the site's jungle and soil in our time for the sole purpose of chopping it up and shipping its contents around the globe.
If you want to see a few of Angkor's decapitated heads or sawed-off carvings, a good place to start is the art galleries at the River City complex along the banks of the Chao Phraya river in Bangkok. There I found a couple of heads in a softly lit room with air-conditioning, a plush carpet, and a honey-voiced salesman. He smiled as I walked in and asked, "So, what culture are you interested in? Khmer?"
Cambodia has, within its limited resources, significantly stepped up enforcement efforts and border controls, and looting is said to have eased in the last few years around the best-known monuments. I detect some embarrassment from antiquities dealers, at least in the United States, over the speed and rapacity with which looting swept through Angkor in the 1990s. One told me that he will no longer sell anything taken from a standing Khmer monument unless he is sure the provenance dates from before the usual cutoff date, 1970 (thus implying that he will continue to take pieces from elsewhere). But once pillage has been introduced into a local economy, it is, like other illicit industries, difficult to extirpate. Looting hastaken hold so thoroughly in Angkor that even concrete copies replacing previously looted statues have been stolen.
Dealers and other apologists for the antiquities trade often maintain that their goods were brought to the market years ago, that they stayed in private collections and then recirculated through the market. Time and again the facts on the ground contradict the old "grandmother's attic" argument. Colin Renfrew, head of the University of Cambridge's archaeological institute, writing about China, said: "Nothing could be more telling, for instance, than the extraordinary flow of Chinese antiquities in recent years, most of them passing through Hong Kong. Few British or American grandmothers had access to Chinese antiquities prior to 1970. And those that did were more likely to be collecting porcelain-Ming vases and the like--than figures and ceramics of the Han and Tang dynasties. These could only have been preserved complete if buried in tombs, from which they have subsequently been removed."11 In other words, you can be sure that almost any stone or ceramic Chinese artifact more than a few centuries old on the market today has been recently looted.
On Hollywood Road in Hong Kong, center of China's bustling antiquities industry, shop after shop sells artifacts so recently dug up that they still have dirt in their cracks. Letting people assume that I was an antiquities buyer (one of only two times I did that in the course of researching this book), I poked through a few shops and asked dealers where they got artifacts: looters or "farmers," they replied, without reserve and without exception. A shop owner named Thomas told me how trucks jammed with pillaged artifacts came over the border from China proper into Hong Kong every few nights (no doubt with a good number of fakes mixed in), "so come around often because you never know what will turn up." A plump, cheerful Hong Kong native who seemed well practiced in ensuring that no customer felt the slightest remorse about buying antiquities, Thomas was selling a slightly larger-than-life, five hundred-year-old headless Buddha for $20,000. He said it had drawn the interest of a major museum in the American Midwest.
"Recently arrived," he told me with a conspiratorial nudge.
He showed me a cabinet full of about fifty terra-cotta statuettes from the Han dynasty, more than two thousand years old. At $200 each, they were attractive pieces, sweet-faced women standing in shy poses and smiling coyly through pursed lips.
"A single tomb will have 150 or 200 of these. They're not exactly scarce," he said helpfully. "Of course it's illegal to dig up these things in China. You know what they do with looters in China? They kill them. But once they're in Hong Kong, you can buy and sell them freely. You could fill your suitcase with them and take them home and nothing would happen."What is punishable by death in China proper is evidently legal, or at least tolerated, in Hong Kong's freewheeling capitalist system.
Yet some pieces are too hot to handle.
"If somebody offered me a Xi'an marching soldier in terra-cotta, I couldn't sell it," Thomas said, referring to the armies of life-size soldiers found by Chinese archaeologists. "It's too famous. I'd be arrested!" he said, laughing.
Dealers, he told me, adore the recently created fifteen-hour nonstop flights from Hong Kong to New York. It allows them to bring looted Chinese antiquities to the best American galleries quickly and easily without the two-day ordeal of stopovers and connections they used to endure, with all the risk of seizure, delay, or breakage that entailed. Artifacts can go from tomb to dealer to plane in a matter of hours.
"The direct flights have made things so much easier," he said.12
Many art dealers freely admit that the antiquities they're selling might be freshly looted. They're not in a position to run an exhaustive provenance study to ensure that a given piece was not recently taken from a tomb, they say. And anyway, a collector who has paid for a piece has more reasons to cherish and take care of it than an underfunded museum in an underdeveloped country where it will only gather dust.
Torkom Demirjian runs the Ariadne Galleries on New York's Madison Avenue, where he sells high-quality Greek, Turkish, and occasionally pre-Columbian and other artifacts. No matter how you feel about the trade, it is impossible to enter this gallery and not be struck by the grace and ingenuity of the objects he sells. Armenian by birth, Demirjian is an unabashed spokesman for the sale of antiquities that most people would agree bear the telltale signs of looting--no record of having been in any other collection, no record of having been excavated in an archaeological context, no record of having been legally exported from the country of origin.
"I don't care what the provenance of an object is. It's like a baby. The piece is out there, someone has got to take care of it, and it's much better off with someone who loves it than an archaeologist who sees it as just the subject of his dissertation," he said. "That is the difference between the archaeologists and us. To them, it is simply a document. To me, it is a work of art. It moves me."
In the late 1990s he sold a collection of about two hundred Colombian, Peruvian, and Costa Rican gold artifacts in separate deals for about $3.5 million. He admitted it might all have been looted, though he couldn't say when.
"It's against human nature to tell people not to buy beautiful objects. It's like telling them not to have sex," said Demirjian. "We can't stop purposeful plunder from here because it has to do with each country's reality.So the argument is that we should restrict the flow of objects to stop plundering, but that will not work because people who collect know that they are not harming a piece but protecting it."
A slight, severe-looking man with black-rimmed glasses and a close beard, dressed casually in New York blacks, he has a booming, raspy voice that seems too big for his body when he rails against the elitist archaeologists who try to demonize collecting. "Archaeologists destroy, too. To get to the layer below, they have to destroy the layer above so they can say this object was leaning against that object or something, and they take five pages to say it. Then you go to their conferences and they all talk so pompously about ideas that have no application in the real world, or they come up with slogans like 'the power of money versus the power of culture.' Sounds good, doesn't it? But they don't even know what culture is."
Demirjian told me that he had "stringent purchasing practices" that involved requiring people who sold him artifacts to sign a form saying they had good title to the object, a common practice in modern art dealing. Nevertheless, he said, if he is not satisfied that the source is legal, "we don't buy it. And contrary to popular belief, we won't buy just anything that comes along."
As the U.S. government signs more treaties with source countries restricting the import of antiquities (discussed in Chapter 8), American dealers have been losing business to their competitors in Europe for the best, fresh-from-the-ground artifacts. "My government is working to put me at a severe disadvantage to European art dealers. But is that going to stop someone in Peru from digging up tombs? Of course not. These pieces go to Europe now," said Demirjian. "They will find their market."13
Before I took the bus back to Lima that morning, and before Lucho arrived, I took Robin, Remi, and Harry out to breakfast at a truck stop on the highway. In the photos I took at that breakfast, we're all sitting at a table looking exhausted but pleased. Robin put my camera around his neck and walked over to flirt with women at the other tables.
Digging up bodies did not strike me as a very satisfying way to make a living, no matter how much it paid. I asked them if it didn't bother them.
"When you first start doing this, it makes you nervous," Remi said. "Digging up bones, you think you're going to incur a curse. But after a while it becomes easy. You don't even think about it."
"But doesn't it bother you personally? I mean, how would you like it if someone dug up your grave and stole everything your family had put in it?"
They didn't have an answer for that. They looked at each other nervously and then at me as if suddenly they wished I wasn't there. Then Remi said, "Around here there is no other kind of work. I used to work at the dairy factory but it closed. There is no work but looting."
STEALING HISTORY. Copyright © 2004 by Roger Atwood. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y 10010.