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Roger Atwood doesn’t support the work of tomb raiders. But that doesn’t mean he hasn’t been on a tomb raid. “To tell others about how the antiquities trade works at its source, you first have to see the grave robbers in action,” he writes in the opening chapter of his recently published first book, Stealing History: Tomb Raiders, Smugglers, and the Looting of the Ancient World.
Thus Atwood found himself spending an evening with a trio of huaqueros, the mostly poor Peruvian treasure hunters who scour the fields of the culturally rich nation for various ancient assets. The group that Atwood accompanied was led by a man nicknamed “Robin”—as in “Batman and”—who worked a few miles from the town of Cañete. Peru’s coastline boasts, as Atwood writes, “some five thousand known huacas”—the burial mounds that, over the centuries, have yielded untold treasures to looters.
The raiders had fashioned an almost arthroscopic approach to plundering: “For the first hour, all they did was prospect for tombs by driving in their slender, six-foot-long steel poles,” he writes. “If they hit nothing, they moved on. If the pole suddenly met no resistance, that meant it had pierced an empty pot that probably accompanied a tomb. And if the pole made a certain muffled crack, that meant it had hit a body.”
“It was kind of nauseating, kind of disturbing,” says the 42-year-old D.C. resident, who wrote that the expedition netted a “lovely” textile with an estimated resale value of $1,000. “It gave me bad dreams for a while.”
Atwood was risking arrest to witness firsthand the very bottom of a very lucrative food chain. The antiquities business sees billions of dollars’ worth of looted goods change hands every year, and it isn’t just the Robins of the trade who are the problem: Stealing History also pins the blame on the destructive buying habits of the far-ranging networks of collectors who are eager to gobble up as much of the next big find as their wallets allow. In that group Atwood includes aggressive museums more concerned with padding their collections than with curatorial ethics.
And in Atwood’s account, such collectors and museums do not go nameless: Neither Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, nor the Metropolitan Museum of Art, nor the Museum of New Mexico, is spared the rod in Stealing History.
With each irresponsible acquisition, Atwood argues, we lose some historical context. “what we’re left with,” he says, “are decorations.”
The book dwells on the fate of the Weary Herakles, a once-magnificent Roman statue. It’s now torn in half, the lower body on display in Turkey, the upper at the MFA. “A great work of art is always greater than the sum of its parts,” wrote Atwood, “and this piece shows how the reverse is also true, for when you know that the rest of it is elsewhere, the upper torso cannot help but look diminished.”
The last major attempt at covering the ins and outs of the looting industry came in journalist Karl E. Meyer’s 1973 book The Plundered Past. And though that work may have raised awareness about the problem, Atwood says Meyer didn’t finish the job.
“It was almost like he had a failure of will,” Atwood says of his predecessor. “He started talking about the subject. Then he didn’t quite go in for the kill.” In Atwood’s view, that would have been to “follow the story to its logical conclusion, which was that collectors, and dealers, and museums were drilling the life out of the physical remains of the ancient world.”
Stealing History began as a pitch for ARTnews magazine in late 1999. Atwood, who spent about 14 years as a journalist in Latin America and studied classics in college, proposed a profile of Enrico Poli, an eccentric Lima collector who was known for giving $15 tours of his impressive personal collection of pre-Columbian artifacts.
“He sees himself,” Atwood says, “as this man of the Italian Renaissance. He’s…got this idea that he is [a] patron of the arts. He’s like the de Medici of Lima, and he’s going to bring art to the people. But the artists that he supports are not artists—they’re looters.”
Atwood writes in Stealing History: “Poli was never ashamed of telling visitors that he bought directly from looters, once revealing to a television interviewer that he liked to dig up tombs himself.”
The editors at ARTnews. Atwood thinks, were nervous about making the controversial Poli the center of a story—they didn’t want to glorify a poacher. As a result, Atwood was asked to widen the focus of his piece. From there, he says, “it became this big article on the Latin American antiquities trade.”
Poli’s collection features some fine pieces from one of Latin America’s most famous raided locales: Sipán. According to Atwood’s book, in 1987, Juan, Samuel, Emilio, and Ernil Bernal dragged as many as 25 sacks of beautiful, saleable booty from the final resting place of, among others, three Moche monarchs who ruled the area around the brothers’ family home in Sipán from around 100 A.D.
After his piece was published, in June 2000, Atwood began expanding it into a book. Though the problem of looting is worldwide, Atwood chose to focus on Peru. “I wanted to make the book have one kind of central narrative about one country that kind of brought together all the characteristics of this issue,” he says, “and the one that did that the best was Peru, and specifically the Sipán case.”
Good choice: The Sipán drama makes for compelling reading. After the Bernal brothers sacked the site, they took a domestic approach to safeguarding the loot. The objects that they took from the treasure-rich Huaca Rajada ended up in their parents’ home, stashed in a sideboard here, a stereo speaker there. What would become known as “the backflap,” an almost too-gaudy piece of royal bling that was worn by one of the entombed monarchs when he presided over ritual sacrifices, was buried beneath the pen where the brothers kept their fighting cocks.
“It looks like a prop from an Indiana Jones film,” says Atwood. “It’s this excessive, decadent piece….It must have been, in its time, a very famous relic.”
Atwood began to connect the dots in the looting industry, including the backflap’s journey from Sipán to the trunk of a car traveling down the New Jersey Turnpike. “Supposedly, there was this gigantic piece of gold that was just being passed around,” he says. “People thought it was fake, or people doubted its existence. There were these sort of backflap sightings…. It was sort of circulating in this weird underworld.”
Atwood spent about three years traveling between Washington and Peru, camping out at the Library of Congress, and working feverishly at the Kalorama apartment he shares with his partner. Among the wealthy collectors he found in possession of some of the Sipán stash was former West Hollywood resident John Bourne. Bourne isn’t as well-known as some of the other collectors of poached goods mentioned by Atwood, and he may not be as well-off.
Still, Stealing History notes, Bourne had enough dough to buy around $120,000 worth of Moche artifacts when they appeared on his doorstep. For that price, Bourne secured one ancient rattle and a pair of distinctively Sipán-esque ear spools.
Bourne and his collection moved from Los Angeles to Santa Fe, N.M., in 1990. Five years later, he donated a distinctive monkey-head piece to the Museum of New Mexico.
In his book, Atwood blasts the museum for accepting an artifact that Bourne confirmed came from La Mina, a Moche site contemporaneous with the one at Sipán.
He writes that it is “difficult to deny that Bourne should have known the monkey head was looted and exported in violation of Peruvian law, and the director of the Museum of New Mexico, Thomas Livesay, who also signed the deed, should have known, too.”
“I love archaeologists,” Atwood says. “I love learning from them and having them share their scholarship with me and share their friendship with me….But I think they’ve done a lousy job of actually bringing this subject to the public.”
Of course, a 339-page book isn’t going to prompt a bout of self-assessment among huaqueros and other parties along the plunder food chain. But perhaps museumgoers will start asking why the Weary Herakles hasn’t been made whole. “This book is not going to deter the collector who is hellbent on possessing whatever he wants,” says Robert Goldman, an assistant U.S. attorney who has handled many antiquities cases—including that of the backflap, which made its first North American appearance wrapped in underwear. “It will make a difference in convincing the vast majority of Americans of the serious issues that are involved.”
“We can punish the bad guy,” he adds, “but the most important thing is education.”
The more light Atwood sheds on his shady subjects, however, the greater the risk. The author says that Stealing History was thoroughly reviewed for libel. Still, before its publication, he received a “note” from Bourne’s lawyer. Atwood firmly believes his book is free of “actionable” prose, but, he points out, “the people who are responsible for this trade are very powerful.”CP