Uproar over Italian legislation that would legalize looted antiquities

Italian legislators attempted to sneak a little nasty into the state budget this year. The “archaeo-remittance” measure would give anyone who possesses antiquities a big ol’ way out of trouble: simply declare you’ve owned it from before December 31, 2009, pay a fee and get a 30 year license. No need to prove a history of ownership, certainly no need to know where it was originally found. This would legalize the ownership of looted goods on a massive scale.

The declared purpose of the law is to recover undocumented patrimony and to allow it to be catalogued. In reality the law will end up being an enormous boon to looters and organized criminals, the so-called “archaeomafia,” involved in illegal digging and international trafficking of antiquities.

We’re not dealing here with the remittance of the common earthenware jar or ceramic pot that a farmer happened to unearth in his field or that an enthusiast has misguidedly acquired, but of an indiscriminate legalization of archaeological antiquities from clandestine excavations, unethically removed from the collective archaeological record with irreparable harm to the finds themselves, especially in terms of provenance. […]

The antiquities thus “legalized” will also probably be allowed to be bequeathed in wills or even sold. The department of cultural heritage will only have the power to contest the declared value of the artifact and request the difference.

Thus overnight, the law will officially transform looters and the “archaeomafia,” which the current legal system condemns and prosecutes, into collectors and managers of cultural heritage, who with the antiquities they have robbed from the public patrimony, can engage, legally, in commercial activities and with museums and art galleries.

Enjoying that chill running up and down your spine?

Similar laws have come up in the Italian legislature before, but they were always defeated by the subsequent uproar from the archaeological community and supporters. This time things were scarier because instead of being proposed as a law unto itself, it was a measure attached to the budget, and legislators tend to pass budgets no matter what heinousness lies within.

There is good news, however. The Italian National Association of Archaeologists (ANA) has raised hell and the story got traction in the Italian press and all over the Internet. There’s a Facebook group protesting the measure and an online petition. (The text of the Facebook page and the petition is the same as the open letter I link to and quote above, just fyi.)

In the space of just a few days, the ruckus has forced a retreat. The parliamentary majority has said they will not add the archeo-remittance measure to the state budget. Assuming they actually make good on that, the acute danger will settle into a chronic one. The measure will remain in the pipeline as proposed bill, so the ruckus must remain loud to keep the scoundrels from making this monstrosity law.