Do Tourists Receive a “Get Out of Jail Free” Card to Smuggle Illicit Antiquities?

Posted on November 24, 2010

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Pre-Columbian Figurines from Western Mexico

I was just in San Fran for an ARCA panel presentation, so I thought this post timely.  The Bay City News reports:

A gathering is planned in San Francisco today to celebrate the repatriation of a pre-Columbian figurine seized from a passenger at Oakland International Airport earlier this year.

The 2.5-inch figurine was confiscated on Feb. 10 from the luggage of a man arriving in Oakland from Mexico, U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokeswoman JoAnn Winks said.

The passenger claimed he found the artifact in Ameca, a city in the state of Jalisco in western Mexico, but there were some “inconsistencies” in his story, Winks said.

The man was not detained but agreed to sign a form relinquishing property rights to the item, she said.

The object is being returned pursuant to a bilateral agreement between Mexico and the United States, in which the US agrees to enforce Mexican patrimony laws and return illegally exported pre-Columbian objects to the State of Mexico.

It’s worth noting that the smuggler was not penalized, and instead just had to sign a form relinquishing the item.  For as long as tourists are not punished for smuggling antiquities, they will not take it seriously as a crime, and will continue to bring in illicit objects.  Tourists don’t say to themselves, “Oh, I’ll just throw a little hash in my suitcase, what’s the worst that could happen?” because they know that a hellstorm of the fire and fury of the American justice system will rain down on them if they get caught trying to bring drugs into the country.

It’s obviously not as easy to police smuggling of antiquities as drugs.  Drugs are detectable without a visual, using dogs for instance, while antiquities are not.  Also, every individual antiquity requires a specific expert to report on whether it’s illicit, unlike with drugs.  But the point is that when someone is caught smuggling an illicit artifact into the country, it would be appropriate to impose some sort of penalty.  Criminal prosecutions of tourists for smuggling are, of course, difficult, but for as long as they get a “free pass”, they will continue to attempt to sneak illicit artifacts into the country.  And the majority of them will succeed.

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