Jason Felch discussing WikiLoot at the ARCA Conference in June 2012.
Recently, we caught up with Jason Felch, co-author of Chasing Aphrodite: The Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World’s Richest Museum. While we here at SPI are attacking the problem of looting and the illicit antiquities trade from the supply side, Jason does so from the demand side. With this in mind, Jason has created “WikiLoot,” an open source database of information and documents concerning the illicit trade in looted antiquities. We asked him more about it:
1. We read that the inspiration for WikiLoot is the vast amount of documentation seized by European investigators over the past two decades during investigations of smuggling Classical antiquities out of Greece and Italy. Tell us more about how you came up the idea.
“The seized archives are a treasure trove of information about the illicit trade — several gigabytes worth of business records, correspondence, personal diaries, shipping documents and photographs seized from some of the most prominent middlemen in the antiquities trade over the past five decades. To date, only a handful of people have had access to these files. The starting point of WikiLoot is to make many of these records publicly available and to crowdsource their analysis. Down the road, we hope to expand beyond just Classical material, as the problem of looting is global.”
2. How will it be funded?
“We’re currently submitting applications for development grants to a variety of funders. We may also seeking crowd-funding through a Kickstarter campaign. These will allow us to consult widely with likely users during the development phase and establish a bigger network of collaborators and partners.”
3. Give us the basics. Someone stumbles upon a document from illicit antiquities market, what do they do?
“People aren’t likely to stumble across documents from the illicit trade, so in the beginning we’ll be providing the raw data and asking “the crowd” for help with the analysis. When you land at our homepage you’ll see several things: a blog with the latest reports on the illicit trade; a global map showing our progress at mapping the trade in various regions of the world; a list of on-going projects that need your help, whether you’re an expert or curious lay person. You’ll have an opportunity to search for content at your local museum, or by object type or ancient culture. Deeper into the site, you’ll be able to explore the raw data and help sort, tag and link those records. Contributors will be credited for their work in a way similar to how Wikipedia credits its contributors. This will also provide a measure of quality control. All of this will be supported by a database on the back end that will offer researchers what will be an authoritative data set on looting.”
4. What is the end result of WikiLoot? What do you envision?
“WikiLoot is an experiment in collaborative online research. It could very well fail. But if it succeeds, our hope is that the site will accomplish several goals:
1. Broaden the number of people who are passionate about ancient art, care about protecting it and are willing to chip in.
2. Create an authoritative dataset about the illicit trade that will allow researchers and the general public to better understand the role it plays in the legitimate art market of museums, auction houses and art galleries.
3. Provide a source for due-dilligence and provenance research for responsible collectors who want to avoid doing business with the illicit trade.
4. Shine a bright light on a global black-market that is responsible for the destruction of our knowledge about the ancient world, and hopefully stem that destruction.”
5. How do you see WikiLoot and SPI working together?
“I see WikiLoot and SPI as two sides of the same coin: efforts to curb the market incentives that drive modern looting. I’m excited about SPI’s community-based approach and look forward to working with SPI all in any and all ways that make sense.”
Read more about WikiLoot at the Chasing Aphrodite website and blog: