Introducing WikiLoot: Your Chance to Fight the Illicit Antiquities Trade

[UPDATE: Our WikiLoot proposal has sparked a great conversation about the project. Thanks for all the comments submitted below and on the application, which you can find here. Collaboration is at the heart of this project, so we've created an open group in Facebook where people can continue to exchange ideas about the potential (and pitfalls) of WikiLoot. Join the conversation here.]

Today we’re pleased to announce — and to seek your help with — an exciting new project we’ve been tinkering with in private for some time. We’re calling it WikiLoot.

The idea behind WikiLoot is simple:

1. Create an open source web platform, or wiki, for the publication and analysis of a unique archive of primary source records and photographs documenting the illicit trade in looted antiquities.

2. Use social media and other tools to engage a broad network of contributors — experts, journalists, researchers, dilettantes and curious citizens — to collaborate in the analysis of that material.

This chart showing the key players in the illicit antiquities trade was seized by Italian police in the 1990s.

The inspiration for WikiLoot is the vast amount of documentation seized by European investigators over the past two decades during investigations of the illicit trade in Classical antiquities smuggled (primarily) out of Greece and Italy. The business records, journals, correspondence and photographs seized from looters and middlemen during those investigations comprise a unique record of the black market.

Much of that documentation remains tangled in legal cases that are likely to end inconclusively, like that of former Getty antiquities curator Marion True and dealer Robert Hecht. Despite remarkable investigative work by authorities in Italy and Greece, only the trial of Italian dealer Giacomo Medici reached a verdict.

This Polaroid seized from the warehouse of dealer Giacomo Medici shows the Getty Museum's Statue of Apollo shortly after it was looted from a tomb in Southern Italy.

WikiLoot will make these records and photographs publicly available on the web and will enlist collaborators around the world to tag and analyze them. As with Wikipedia, participants will be given credit for their contributions. Ultimately, we hope to create the world’s most authoritative dataset of a black market whose size and reach is still poorly understood. (Estimates of the illicit antiquities trade range from $200 million a year to $10 billion dollars a year.)

The project is still embryonic — we’re consulting with open-source techies on the best way to structure the wiki; with lawyers about the legal issues involved; and with social media experts on on how to engage the broader public in the effort. We’re also considering concerns about the effect this release of information will have on existing collections and the still-thriving market for antiquities with unclear ownership histories.

Today we’re taking an important step toward launching WikiLoot with our application for a Knight Foundation News Challenge Grant. And we need your help.

Challenge Grants reward innovative uses of new media to solve problems and inform the public. The theme of this round of grants is “networks.” Here’s how the folks at Knight explain what they’re looking for: “The Internet, and the mini-computers in our pockets, enable us to connect with one another, friends and strangers, in new ways. Witness the roles of networks in the formation, coverage and discussion of recent events such as the rise of the Tea Party, flash mobs, the Arab Spring, last summer’s UK riots and the Occupy movement. We’re looking for ideas that build on the rise of these existing network events and tools – that deliver news and information and extend our understanding of the phenomenon.”

For WikiLoot, our network is YOU — the growing number of interconnected people around the world concerned about the illicit antiquities trade and looking to do something about it. We’re relying on your input to shape the project and, once launched, contribute to it with your knowledge.

To start, we need your support for our Challenge Grant proposal. One of the key things considered by judges is public engagement with the proposed idea. The best way to show this is for you to “like” our proposal or add a comment on how you think it could help — or be improved. (You may need to sign in with a Tumblr or other social media account.)

Show your support by liking or commenting on our WikiLoot proposal, which is posted on Knight’s Tumblr page here

We’re also eager to tap your expertise — or curiosity — during this development stage of WikiLoot. What features would help engage a broad audience in the analysis of this material? What concerns do you have about its release? Who else should we be reaching out to or partnering with? What can you contribute?

To that end, we’ll be making WikiLoot a new tab at the top of ChasingAprhodite.com. That’s where you can submit public comments, suggestions or rants. We’ll update it with new information as things develop. If you’d like to contact us privately, do so via email: chasingaphrodite@gmail.com

Thanks for your interest and support. We look forward to hearing your thoughts on WikiLoot!

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22 responses to “Introducing WikiLoot: Your Chance to Fight the Illicit Antiquities Trade

  1. This is an excellent idea. With data mining techniques from the digital humanities world, I have no doubt that such a collection of documents could be analyzed effectively to disrupt the trade. I look forward to seeing this project progress, and would be pleased to participate.

  2. I’d also be pleased to participate in whatever small way I can. I have been working in Southeast Asia in graduate school (Vietnam especially), and the trade in small, portable items thrives there. This includes human remains. The situation there is as nothing compared to neighboring Cambodia, however, and while the number of trained indigenous archaeologists and collaborative international projects are increasing throughout the region, looting is still a big issue. I’d suggest that a section of the Wiki include labeled/dated photographs of items for sale or discarded around looted sites that archaeologists or concerned citizens document in their travels. It could become a world-wide, constantly updated database of what’s being traded where. Even something that InterPol would find useful.

  3. Elizabeth Marlowe

    Has the photo archive been made available to the museums, dealers and auction houses yet? The ‘gotcha’ approach of this project seems unnecessarily antagonistic. If the goal is to embarrass museums, then yes, let members of the public catch them with their pants down. But if the goal is to track down as many of the pieces in the Medici archive as possible, then wouldn’t it be more productive to let the museums check the archives against their own inventories and come clean first? And THEN post the photos of whatever pieces still haven’t been located?

    • Hi Elizabeth, you make great points that raise important issues at the core of what Jason Felch has proposed — and could make the work significant. The photo archives haven’t been circulated among museums/collectors or made public, and as you say, doing so has many implications.

      Perhaps the most intriguing: Like the objects they represent, these photos are themselves artefacts stripped of context. The potential of network approaches is to construct context by mapping an array of information in a way that takes into account data such as collecting histories (see David Gill) and the reams of court documents relating to these photos. The result doesn’t need to be just binary (ie, “this photo represents this specific object in a museum”).

      Consider that Giacomo Medici objects to the circulation of images from his archive, arguing that not every one represents a crime; he’s been absolved for trafficking some of the objects depicted, information contained in his case files. These documents could be part of WikiLoot, too, along with data from auction catalogs, museum records and photos from other dealers’ seized archives (which share some duplicate images, whose presence adds more data points…).

      Re-contextualization of the photos, rather than a “gotcha” exercise, could help restore information lost in the illicit trade. And it could help museums, collectors, governments and scholars make informed choices.

      Thanks!

    • Elizabeth, thanks for your comment. I take your point on gotcha. The nature of a wiki is that it is open to all users. We hope and expect that WikiLoot users will include academics, curators, collectors, dealers, provenance researchers and others who have deep knowledge of the market and existing collections. All have an incentive to deepen our understanding of the illicit trade. But I’m not sure about giving one group preferred access before others. It seems to go against the principle of openess. Lets keep talking.

  4. Pingback: More information on WikiLoot – proposals to use social media / crowd sourcing to build a database of disputed artefacts » Elginism

  5. Does this proposal cover just classical antiquities or more modern stolen artworks as well?

    • Sam, our idea is to start with the trade in Classical antiquities (which we know best) and expand into other areas (near east, pre-Colombian, SE Asia) as primary source material about those markets becomes available. We’ve already heard about some possibilities in those areas we’re excited about. I had not anticipated covering art stolen from documented collections as this area is served by others, including Interpol and Art Loss Register.

  6. Great new step! Museum Security Network / Ton Cremers will give all possible support.

  7. This is an interesting proposal, but it does raise certain questions.
    1. As Elizabeth Marlowe asks, is this going to be a postive contribution or merely another excercise in gotcha?
    2. Is this an appropriate project for investigative journalists to undertake or does it blur the lines between journalism and activism?
    3. What is the source of these documents? Were they released legally or leaked unofficially? There would be some considerable irony if you are going to hunt looted material with “looted” documents. If the latter, shouldn’t the NSPA apply?

  8. Peter, thanks for your comment. Ancient coin collectors should have a keen interest in seeing this project succeed, and we would appreciate their support and expertise. I’ve addressed Elizabeth’s question. Re: journalism, I’ll tell you what: I’ll keep my advice about lobbying to myself if you do the same about journalism, whose most basic function is bringing hidden information to light. Your crack about nspa and “looted” documents is silly. I know you’re used to fighting for your cause in the trenches, but hope you have more constructive thoughts to contribute about WikiLoot soon. We’re open to them.

  9. Elizabeth Marlowe

    I take your point (above) about not giving “preferred access” to one group over another, and it prompts me to try to articulate my own thoughts on this more precisely. The issues have become so polarized that it is easy to forget the many concerns and questions that unite all of us who care about the past. Chief among these is: where did the thousands of objects pictured in the photo archive end up? That is, to my mind at least, the first question we should be trying to answer, and the one which a wiki would be best-suited to address. But there is no way it will be able to do so without the cooperation of private owners, dealers and curators, no matter how vast the wiki-network of concerned citizens grows. But it is equally unlikely that members of those owning-communities are going to cooperate if the project is framed in the combative language of your proposal (“your chance to fight the illicit antiquities trade”). How about “your chance to help track down and preserve thousands of precious remains of an endangered historical past”? I recognize that those two goals are related, maybe so related that the difference between them is purely rhetorical. But language matters, especially on a project whose success depends on the widest possible buy-in from members of bitterly polarized communities. I also suspect that there is more than rhetoric at stake here. It sounds to me like your goal is not merely to track down all the objects in the archive, but also to convince museums (by publicly shaming them) to repatriate pieces in their collections that passed through Medici’s hands. (European museums’ refusal to do so is the subject of David Gill’s most recent post). This, I would argue, is a separate matter from the strict location of the objects, and the more separate it can remain, the better. The more the wiki is about identification rather than repatriation, the more willingly those on the ownership-side of the debate will share their data. And the broader the community of participants in the wiki becomes, the more bridges it builds, and the more it helps us remember our shared goal of preserving the material remains of the past. The building of such bridges also strikes me as more in keeping with the spirit of the Knight Foundation grant than encouraging people to continue fighting.

  10. Pingback: jorge.cortell.net » Panel discussion about art collecting at Asia Society

  11. Only the slightest of criticisms for taking the conversation over to facebook. For those of us wary of that site, it makes it hard for us to comment. That said, I’d love to hear more. Keep me posted on where you are re: Latin America!

    • I certainly understand being wary of fb. Are you able to follow the conversation there without being logged in? If so, send me your comments and I’ll post them on your behalf.

      • No worries! I have a dummy (empty) fb account for just this reason. I haven’t quite deleted myself yet! I’ll request group membership.

  12. Pingback: WikiLoot: the Knight Foundation News Networks Challenge | conflict antiquities

  13. Pingback: Chasing Aphrodite at Google: Jason Felch on the Illicit Antiquities Trade and WikiLoot | CHASING APHRODITE

  14. Dr Geoffrey A Smith

    This site with a DATABASE can become essential reference for museums . We need ANY resource which can help identifiy stolen or looted antiquities. I am both a emeritus and current museum trustee. We need exhibits to continue our purpose of education but are now quite reluctant to accept any donations because of the possibility of tainting. Photo Archives of legally acquired collections are also needed.

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