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Illicit Antiquities in the Museum

Illicit Antiquities in the Museum

Research project financed by the Independent Research Fund Denmark 2020-2023.
Head of the project: associate professor Vinnie Nørskov

Illicit antiquities are objects with a tainted acquisition history, meaning illegally excavated, illegally exported out of their country of origin, and/or traded illegally on the art market. Due to the special character of the antiquities market, illicit antiquities transform into commodities during the process of changing hands and they end as museum objects or collector’s items. In recent years, more and more classical archaeological museum objects have, however, been identified as illicit antiquities when evidence of a tainted acquisition history appeared. The number is growing, as is the number of such objects returned to their countries of origin. These antiquities are products of criminal activities, but they are not criminal in themselves. They are important part of the evidence in criminological research. The aim of the research project is to explore ways to study illicit antiquities in museums so that they can be used in future archaeological research on the past without sanctioning the criminal activities that they represent in the present. We are investigating to study illicit antiquities to connect them to contextual archaeological research.


The key incentive of this project is the need to re-evaluate the scientific value of illicit antiquities. There are several reasons to do this. The most pressing is the thousands of objects in museum collections and on the art market with no information about their archaeological context. Many objects have arrived with little or no information since the establishment of these collections, and looting of archaeological sites still provides objects for private and public collections. Since the early 1970s, a change in understanding and international law marks the beginning of a more critical approach and an increasing number of studies on illicit antiquities have been carried out, strongly supported by the Centre for Illicit Antiquities at Cambridge University during 1996-2007. Studies have dealt with: documenting the illegal excavations and the connections to the art market and museums’ acquisitions; the involvement of scholars and the intellectual consequences; the prevention of illegal excavations through juridical and ethical measures; and the restitution of illicit antiquities. Due to the work of special art squads and undercover journalists, a network of dealers in Italy was revealed in the 1990s, which has provided an enormous amount of documentation for the market in classical antiquities. The evidence has led to a number of restitutions.

Theoretical framework

This project takes the concepts of contextualisation and object life-histories as essential theoretical frameworks. Contextualisation is not only defining an archaeological find spot, but recognising that objects move through different contexts during a lifetime. Hodder & Hutson (2003) underline the dialectic role between object and subject: the object in itself is mute, speaking only through the interpreter. In this way, contextualisation is continuously constructed in a dynamic process where past and present cannot be separated but must be seen as timeless. This is investigated through object biographies as object life-histories. The object biography traditionally covers the birth, life, and death of an object, with death traditionally defined as the end of use in the past, whereas object life-history is frequently used in studies looking at the macro-scale objectives covering entire groups of objects. In the current project, biographical studies of selected objects begin with the period after recovery: the modern history of the museum object as a precondition to study the meaning and function in Antiquity. 

Methodology: Apulian red-figure pottery as case study

Apulian red-figure pottery is chosen as case study for two reasons. First, Apulia in South Italy has been a victim of large-scale illegal excavations in the twentieth century. About 80 percent of the known corpus of Apulian red-figure pottery lack information on the archaeological. The research history has been deeply influenced by a connoisseur approach, studying the images and shapes and classifying vases through workshops and painters, with little or no interest in use and meaning in the local context where the vases were consumed. Second, a large group of fragments found in the antiquities dealer Robin Symes’ warehouse in Geneva has been made available for study through a long term deposit at the Museum of Ancient Art and Archaeology, Aarhus University, by the Italian Ministry of Culture. The fragments provide a unique opportunity to investigate the processes of transformation. Because the illicit fragments have been confiscated and repatriated, they are an ethically ‘safe’ case to study in order to understand the routes of the market, establish object life-histories, and work with different methods of recontextualising them. The project uses this case study to analyse three different methods of connecting the material to the archaeological area where they presumably were illegally excavated. Each method is explored in the three subprojects respectively: 

Subproject 1.       The market: following objects through the routes of the antiquities market. 

The material from Robin Symes’ warehouse enables a study of the routes of the objects through the illicit antiquities market through the evidence found in the warehouse: c. 1,500 fragments belonging to at least 50 different vases, boxes, wrapping material in the shape of newspapers, and polaroids showing images from the same conservation laboratory. This project is carried out by Vinnie Nørskov in cooperation with  Christos Tsirogiannis, AIAS fellow at Aarhus University, who has for many years carried out forensic archaeological investigations and has access to essential archives. The concept of object life-histories is used as framework for the analysis.


Subproject 2.       The source: matching fragments from the market with material found in Apulia.

Looting in Apulia has been extensive. Satellite mapping has recently been introduced as a tool to monitoring looting, identifying more than 1,000 archaeological sites damaged by illegal excavations. Tombs with well-preserved objects are the most interesting targets for looters, but they often leave smaller fragments behind, that can be reconnected with fragments on the art market or in museums as was for instance the case in Francavilla delle Maritima. The project will investigate the connection between illegal excavations and the material on the art market through two methods. First, by mapping of illegal excavations in Apulia in order to understand the sources of the market during the peak period of looting in the 1970s and 1980s until today studying excavation reports and interviewing archaeologists. Second, by making in-depth contextual analysis of one or two sites chosen based on information from the two other subprojects and the mapping. No study has analysed and published the evidence for looting in Apulia since the study by Marina Mazzei and Daniel Gräpler in 1993, and this will be an important new study for attempts to re-contextualise the thousands of Apulian vases in museums around the world.

This will be carried out by a phd-student beginning in January 2021 and found through an open call, application deadline October 1st 2020:


Supervision of the project by Vinnie Nørskov and Prof. Francesca Silvestrelli (FS), Universitá di Salento in Lecce.


Subproject 3.       The objects: analysing chemical compositions and technology for provenance studies.

The connoisseur approach has until recently been the only method to study the production and consumption of Apulian red-figure pottery, but highly significant new results have come out of context analysis and archaeometry, pointing towards complex and locally-based differences in the region. Analysing the chemical compositions of the clay, technology and surface treatment can place the objects geographically within clusters of production and consumption when combined with stylistic and typological analysis. In this subproject, analysis of surface pigments and slip (Micro-XRF) will be combined with analysis of the chemical composition of clays and thin sections. This method has not yet been used on illicit material from the antiquities market and the project breaks new ground in exploring how this methodology can be used to contextualise illicit antiquities. This part of the project is carried out by Vinnie Nørskov in cooperation with Gry Barfod, assistant professor in Geoscience, Aarhus University.


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