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Professor assists in smuggling investigation

Published: March 9, 2012
Section: News


One year ago, eight Mayan pots were held suspect, unknown in legitimacy and legality, but on March 1, the artifacts were finally returned, with the help of Professor Charles Golden (ANTH), to the Guatemalan Embassy at a repatriation ceremony in Washington.
Two of the eight artifacts, identified as authentic by Golden, made their way all the way to the Skinner Auction House in Marlborough, Mass. Once the artifacts were bought and the seller was unable to present import documents, they were handed over to the authorities. The other six were caught at customs in the luggage of a passenger heading to Houston, Texas.
Golden identified two of these eight artifacts as legitimate Mayan pots, with a high probability that the artifacts originated from Guatemala. Golden described them as 1,200- to 1,300-year-old cylinder pots, which are painted and include various positioned figures—possibly that of Mayan warriors, nobles or kings.
Golden was able to tell that these were, in fact, not imitations by the poor paint job. Often, he explained, smugglers will paint over the original design to make the artifacts look preserved so they will be able to sell the artifact at a higher price.
“When you dig these things out of the ground, they’re damaged, so what people tend to do is to paint over them to try to make them look nice so they can sell them. They just want them to look nice for sale,” Golden said. “In this case, the pots that were painted over were done badly, so I could tell what was original and what was painted over, and that actually helped me figure out that these were real.”
Golden has been working in the Maya area of Mexico and Central America since 1993. His area of research is Mesoamerican archeology, specifically that of pots. When authorities required a local expert on the subject, the state department asked Golden to inspect the validity of the artifacts.
These pots were not particularly expensive. Combined, the pots would have only gone for $20,000, a fraction compared to some individual pots that can be sold for as much as $30,000.
The investigation of the artifacts is still ongoing. Not only do investigators have to prove that the smuggler is guilty, but they also have to prove first the validity of the object itself. This makes it extremely difficult to convict anyone of theft or even that the object was illegally obtained.
The auction houses and the individuals who sell the artifacts make huge amounts of money of the sales. The countries from which the artifacts are taken are hurt an even greater amount.
“You’re destroying all of this heritage and all these potentially valuable archaeological sights that could draw tourists and make money for the local communities. You’re destroying them in order to get one object, and the people who dig them up are paid $20 to $100 for these objects because they have to feed their families. It’s a big scam from the beginning to the end,” he said.
Golden describes the artifact smugglers’ routes to be similar to that of the routes often used by smugglers of drugs and other illegal objects. According to Golden, the trade in illegal antiquities is just behind that of drug trafficking in profit. The problem not only affects the people in the area, but the site itself.
“The best way to think of it is, I think, like a puzzle piece, and if you’re trying to build a 40- to 50-piece puzzle. You get down to the 48th, 49th, 50th piece and they’re missing, then what do you do? What happens is when you destroy that archaeological sight to get that one pot? You’re not only taking that puzzle piece away, you’re knocking the rest of the puzzle off the table. They’re individually important because they fill in the blanks in the picture we’re trying to fill,” Golden said.