© Musée national du Mali. Courtesy of ICOM

Mali has declared an archaeological emergency over the rampant destruction and looting of its ancient treasures, as the government and a French museums council launch a new effort to combat a thriving global market for stolen artefacts.

Recognising the difficulty of curbing the illegal flow of artefacts across the region’s porous borders, Malian authorities and the Paris-based International Council of Museums are trying to stop their entrance into Europe and the US, where they are sold online or at auctions.

At a ceremony in Bamako on Friday, they unveiled a “red list” of items at risk of being illegally exported. These include parchment manuscripts from Timbuktu from the 12th to the 18th century, terracotta statues from the Niger River Valley civilisations and jewellery from the 8th century.

The purpose of the list, says France Desmarais of Icom, is to help customs agents and art dealers quickly assess the likelihood that an artefact has been stolen and exported in violation of Malian law. “Money, drugs, wildlife, when they look at it, they know what it is. For cultural heritage, they don’t,” she says.

The destruction and theft of the west African nation’s artefacts is happening on a large scale, experts say. Mali’s rich cultural heritage came under direct threat in 2012, when Islamist militants took over part of northern Mali including the historic city of Timbuktu and destroyed shrines. Few places have a more fabled history than Timbuktu, which was famed as a centre of learning with a vast library of manuscripts.

“Mali’s cultural assets face a very urgent and particular situation,” said N’Diaye Ramatoulaye Diallo, minister of culture, in a speech at the ceremony. “Although looting and illegally trafficking are recurring phenomena in Mali, the crisis that our country has experienced since 2012 has considerably aggravated [it].”

Authorities like Ms Diallo and experts say the long-term threat to this heritage in Mali and neighbouring countries is the global art and artifacts market. Across the world, in cities from Berlin to Houston, smugglers find buyers who may not be aware or concerned that the items were plundered.

Icom has published more than a dozen other red lists since 2000, typically for countries facing crises, from Iraq and Syria to Egypt and Haiti. The latest list has an “emergency” section focused on Mali, but also includes objects such as sculptures and vases found in eight other west African countries. It will be published in English, French and German and distributed to police and customs officials worldwide via Interpol and the World Customs Organisation, according to Icom.

Ms Desmarais said that the National Museum in Bamako learned that locals in Timbuktu had been illegally selling artefacts to tourists only after the industry collapsed in the wake of the Islamist takeover of the city. Their market decimated, salesmen travelled to the capital and tried to sell the artefacts to the museum. This put the museum in a difficult situation, she said, because if they did not purchase the items, they could leave the country illegally, but “buying an object is not saving it because it encourages more looting”.

Susan McIntosh, an anthropology professor at Rice University who has been working in Mali since the 1970s, says that although west Africa is “phenomenally archaeologically rich”, far less research has been done on the region’s myriad civilisations than on the empires of the Middle East and North Africa.

“This connects directly to the [illicit trade] problem,” she says. “We cannot in many cases recognise the styles of many artefacts because most of the areas are so understudied.” The “red list” is a step in the right direction because it “puts people on alert” and improves the “pictorial database” available to customs agents.

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