This has been a hot debate for the last few years – although the selling and robbing of artefacts has a very long history.
At the moment there are a lot of stolen artefacts for sale through dealers and auction houses. The market has been flooded with the looting of the Iraqi national museum and also with the collapse of law and order in Egypt, when looters went on the rampage.
Ireland seems to suffer from this problem as much as any. When is an artefact part of the nations heritage and when is it not? Can someone who took an artefact from a historic site (perhaps 50 years ago or more) be forced to give it to the state? We have had some strange robberies lately. There was the theft of St. Lawrence O’Toole’s heart (in its 800 year old container) in 2012 as well as other robberies of a similar ilk.
In Whytes latest catalogue for their upcoming History and Literature auction on the 8th November they have two Iron Age stone heads for sale. They have estimated prices of between €5,000 and €8,000.
The provenance of one of them is given as In the ownership of a family at Lorrha, Co. Tipperary for c. 100 years. A hundred years ago: 1912. If they know this, they should have a good idea where it was “found”.
The provenance of the other is given as From a 300 year old house, Claregalway, Co. Galway.
These artefacts are scattered all over the country, in churches, in ruined abbeys, castles, houses, walls, side of the road etc. What is to stop people chiselling away at what surrounds them and then carry them off? Decency and a sense of heritage usually does. But, if people see there is money to be made on these artefacts, they may not last much longer in situ in the countryside.