Autolykos Collection (ongoing) by Walter Costa is a research-based project that visually investigates the looting and online trafficking of archaeological artefacts, a growing transnational crime that, by bartering the traces of our ancestors for profit, contributes to the very destruction of material culture, sacrificing history and public access in favour of commodification and private ownership.
Treasure hunters, smugglers and avid collectors of ancient artefacts have been active since forever, but it’s the appearance of social media that eased and boosted their activities and interactions, as well as the infiltration of armed groups in the business. On Facebook they found a parallel world where setting up such an illegal marketplace is possible, hardly scrutinised and highly profitable.
Focusing on Middle Eastern and North African antiquities illicitly excavated and then sold through private Facebook groups, Autolykos Collection exploits the social platform's archiving of users' "digital artefacts", highlighting the role of photography in facilitating but also revealing the illicit supply chain which perpetuates the colonialist siphoning of cultural heritage from the global South to the global North.
The project also exposes Facebook as an invaluable collaborative learning platform for looters: thanks to numerous specialised groups, they help each other by sharing illustrated tutorials on site spotting and (very destructive) excavation techniques, information on the artefacts most sought after by Western collectors, valuations of artefacts, contacts of traffickers. Nevertheless, looters remain the weakest link in the value chain, which continues to secure the highest profits and lowest risks at the other end of the trafficking and laundering networks.
With the “gentlemen's right to anonymity” shrouding most transactions in the high-end art market with secrecy, it is relatively easy for reckless dealers to introduce looted antiquities into the open trade. After passing through laundering processes that can take years to fabricate false provenances, these artefacts end up resurfacing in galleries, auction houses and private collections. As they look no different from antiquities of legitimate origin, the only way to spot them is to have (visual) evidence of their connection to the trafficking.
Autolykos Collection renders this ongoing loss of material culture visible and tangible by appropriating photographs of artefacts for sale published by looters and traffickers, thus gathering the only visual evidence of the existence of these otherwise unknown antiquities. Then, through 3D modelling and printing, this growing database of images of missing artefacts regains three-dimensionality, generating a collection of physical objects.
These 3D “provisional originals” created from low-resolution photos of looted antiquities incorporate the missing faces and lack of detail of the images. In this way, they materialise the consequences that these criminal activities facilitated by online communication have on the physical realm and ultimately on history, while directly affecting the criminal actors by exposing evidence of their looting.
These tangible reconstructions are “provisional” because there is hope that the missing artefacts will resurface in years to come, “originals” because for now -or forever in case the authentic remains missing- they become the only way to admire the artworks, similar to enjoying Roman copies of long-lost Greek originals.
In Greek mythology, Autolykos was the “king of thieves” because of his ability to become invisible and hide his loot. With social media, these “superpowers” are now just a click away. While exposing how the transience of digital data is jeopardising the very existence of material culture, Autolykos Collection is the first initiative to apply digital reconstruction technologies to cultural heritage that is not threatened by natural disasters or conflicts, but by the destructive forces of commodification in the globalised marketplace.