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Buyers Beware! That Souvenir Could Actually Be a Stolen Artifact

Careful or that souvenir could land you in jail.

Travelers don’t always have an easy task when browsing through the loads of eye-catching antiques in a shop or at a market abroad.

“This piece is very, very old,” says the seller, possibly pointing to a range of ancient coins, paintings, statues, or rings. Hearing this phrase from the mouth of a dealer should put a buyer on alert. Innocent as they might look at local markets or art dealers, some works of art may in fact come from shady sources. 

In situations like this, explains Phacha Phanomvan, a Thai scholar specializing in looted artifacts, the seller “is either cheating us, most probably, or offering something that should not leave the country.” Phacha recommends avoiding “antiquities or any materials claiming to be antique. Be mindful that artifacts, if genuine, are likely looted or illegally taken from the sites.”

Many countries have put regulations in place meant to stop this illicit trade. Some items still make it to the West brought in by smugglers, while others are brought in unintentionally by tourists who don’t know what they’re purchasing. For this reason, souvenir shopping might contribute to the destruction of historical sites and the financing of illegal activities—and even land an unwitting buyer in jail.

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When in Doubt, Don’t Take the Risk

During a short vacation, the burden of due diligence is likely to overwhelm most travelers, especially those not accompanied by a seasoned archeologist. Otherwise, “we take the risk of running afoul of local laws and international treaties,” says Christopher Marinello from Art Recovery International.

According to Marinello, people can be arrested years after returning with an object. There are many social media groups working to identify looted artifacts based on information posted online. Thailand’s SSO is one of them: the group consists of independent academics and activists who work to retrieve items stolen from the country’s Isan region. Others have developed apps aimed at finding and repossessing plundered cultural heritage.

Can tourists excuse the fact that they were not informed about the confusing import laws, or that they weren’t aware the souvenir had been stolen? Not at all. Ignorance of the law is no defense of a crime. Travelers who neglected to check an item’s provenance before acquiring it cannot defend themselves with the argument that they have been tricked into buying it.

“Countries in the Global South each have their own export permission system; usually, it is widely publicized, dealers know it,” says Phacha. “Ask the dealer about [legal exporting], and you will know more about the dealer’s attitude and his objects.”

Buyers hesitant about the status of a souvenir should try to obtain helpful information by asking legal authorities about the seller, and by requesting information about the prospective item at one of the national museums, or a regional, local cultural institution. But in many countries, the whole process can be very complicated and time-consuming, as law authorities on the local level might not be experienced in dealing with looted items. If you aren’t willing to do extensive legwork to verify an antique’s permissibility, it’s not advised that you buy it.

“The seller must guarantee the authenticity of the object and provide written documentation of the provenance and licenses. An Art Loss Register certificate or certificate of authenticity is worthless for this purpose,” Marinello comments.

The Art Loss Register can only certify objects that are in its database, meaning items that are already known to be missing. Marinello says, “The Art Loss Register is not an authenticating body and there are countless cases where dealers and collectors obtained such certificates of clearance despite the objects being stolen.” In addition, the item might also require export permit approval, which is costly and timely.

Does Artifact Theft Via Tourism Happen Often?

In reality, Marinello estimates that looted artifacts are offered for sale quite rarely. Most potential buyers are introduced to a counterfeit item, the price of which has been artificially inflated to take advantage of an unsuspecting tourist.

Yet, in many cases, it is easy to get confused over the period when an object was created. Traders also often mix originals with replicas to avoid detection.

“Unless the seller can say that it’s made by a contemporary artist, just avoid purchasing them. If it’s a replica they should have a license issued by the government’s Fine Arts Department,” Phacha explains. “This is the same for any attempts to export both old and new [sacred] iconography. You need an export permit.”

Phacha reminds us that we should think twice before uprooting certain items from their original sites. “[Religious] sculptures are not just sacred objects for worshiping in homes and temples, but they also function as tombstones, cremation storage, and ancestral merit-making rites,” she says. Therefore, moving them abroad demolishes a linkage between a certain community and an item. Bottom line? Never take an item from a religious site, no matter how much you like it. Visit official gift shops instead.

Should Travelers Completely Avoid Buying Items That Look Antique?

The arts and handicraft industry plays a significant role in many countries’ economies, and shopping is often the best way not only to explore the local culture but to support the livelihoods of the artists who live there. Creating and selling these items brings employment opportunities to a vast segment of craftspeople generating foreign exchange for the country, while at the same time preserving its cultural heritage. Most importantly, we can meet the creator face-to-face and, over the course of time, the object is likely to increase in value.

Ethical travel requires tourists to consider where purchases have been acquired and who could be harmed if said purchases leave the country. It isn’t merely about the legal ramifications—removing items from their rightful culture is effectively stealing from a collective people. But the consequences should at the very least serve as a sufficient deterrent.

“If you truly want to enjoy your time exploring the cultural heritage of another nation, that can be done by experiencing the cuisine and purchasing craftsmanship of [contemporary artists] rather than through their justice system,” says Marinello.