What drives the booming trade in Tunisia’s antiquities?


In March this year, customs officials in Sfax intercepted a car carrying over 600 antique coins. The driver is currently facing criminal prosecution, and a broader investigation has been launched.

Tunisia has up to 50 000 sites of historical interest. In an interview with ENACT, archaeologist and international relations scholar, Youssef Cherif, said that seizures of looted antiquities occur on a weekly basis in Tunisia. ‘The famous city of Carthage and a major part of the country were built on the ruins of previous civilisations that ruled Tunisia,’ Cherif explains. Ancient cities were built on top of each other, with buildings covering ancient artefacts.

Trafficked objects vary from statues and coins to precious metals, mosaics and manuscripts. Experts also mention rare and precious Punic ceramics from ancient Carthage. According to Cherif, these objects are sent abroad, often to European art and antiquities auctions or to collectors in the Gulf states

Most sites have not been classified either by UNESCO or the National Heritage Institute (INP) in Tunisia, and are exposed to hazards such as deterioration and theft. Classification is important, since it allows for objects to be marked, authenticated and traced.

Tunisia’s cultural artefacts are usually looted at historical sites where protection is weak

Looting usually occurs in historical sites where protection is weak, or through illegal excavations of official sites – a crime that is widespread and common, according to Cherif. In an interview with ENACT, Sami Badreddine, a former journalist who investigated the subject, estimated that up to 50 illegal excavations took place every day during 2011–13.

Several factors drive Tunisia’s illicit trade in antiquities. The January 2011 revolution weakened the state security apparatus and led to an increase in many types of cross-border trafficking. An antiquities collector in Tunis told ENACT that these objects often leave the country via sea routes, for instance on private yachts, where security and custom controls can be weaker.

But the recent boom in the antiquities market is not only the result of security unrest. It dates back to the French colonial period, since the end of the 19th century. More recently, the trade was controlled by a number of powerful families linked to the authoritarian regime. For these reasons, Badreddine believes that the Tunisian authorities were lenient with traffickers of antiquities.

Following the revolution in 2011, relatives of former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled the country. Some 93 archaeological objects were seized from their homes, including antique ceramics, jewellery, and sculptures. Among these artefacts, 80 reportedly carry INP markings. This led to the conviction in 2015 of the former mayor of Tunis city and former director of the INP.

Tunisia’s illicit antiquities market is not only the result of recent unrest, but dates back to the French colonial period

Weak legal and institutional protection has been one of the reasons why the market has flourished. In accordance with the relevant UNESCO convention on the illicit trafficking of cultural property, Tunisia adopted a law in 1994 to protect historical heritage. It also established sanctions for crimes against heritage, including the illegal trade in archaeological items. But these sanctions were insignificant and permissive, and the definition of trafficking was very narrow. Although illegal excavations were prohibited, the law only protected objects bearing INP markings. The law was eventually amended in 2011 to address these flaws and reinforce the sanctions.

Badreddine also referred to a special investigative unit that was established in 2001 to deal with antiquities trafficking, composed of 24 Tunis-based police agents. He said that the unit was successful in dismantling trafficking networks involving Tunisians and foreigners, but was shut down when Ben Ali’s relatives were implicated in some of the cases.

The situation is not much better today. As with all types of organised crime, widespread corruption poses a major challenge. The involvement of public servants and custom services shows how corruption creates opportunities for traffickers. During the former regime, the trafficking of antiquities was controlled though wealth and power. But since 2011, the market has expanded and now involves wide range of new actors who use bribery to achieve their goals.

In addition to weak legislation and a lack of policy, historical sites do not get sufficient attention or protection. A member of the Association for the Protection of the Medina of Tunis believes there are two reasons for this. ‘Firstly, it is costly. There is no vision yet about how it can be exploited in a manner that provides the state with a level of revenue worth investing in. The second reason is because of corruption. Allocating more money and attention to this field would go against the interests of influential and wealthy land speculators and real estate developers, who invest very little money to maximise their profit.’ This refers to another facet of this crime, namely illegal construction on archaeological sites. This phenomenon is attributed to collusion between land owners and developers and authorities.

In addition to weak legislation and a lack of policy, Tunisia’s historical sites do not get sufficient attention or protection

Badreddine also said there is a lack of public awareness concerning the value of antiquities and archaeological sites, sometimes even among those in charge of protecting them. This was evident, for example, in the attack in 2015 at the Bardo National Museum, which houses the world’s largest collection of Roman mosaics. Two armed men entered the museum undetected, keeping several tourists hostage and killing 20 people. Security forces were slow to respond.

Several institutions are responsible for protecting historical heritage and antiquities. However, coordination remains weak between the two main bodies (the INP and the Agency for Heritage Development and Cultural Promotion) and security services. These institutions also lack material and human resources.

To tackle the drivers of this phenomenon, it is clear that Tunisia should improve protection and conservation mechanisms. An important step would be to conduct an audit of objects that have been reported stolen, and updating the inventory of INP-marked objects. More comprehensive legislation is also called for, including specific provisions to address the trafficking of archaeological objects and special investigative procedures that are tailored to this field.

There is also a clear need for increased cooperation between state actors from the heritage protection sector, law enforcement and custom agents, who should receive special training to better detect and investigate items at borders.

Rim Dhaouadi, Researcher, ENACT project, ISS

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