Author Craig Childs' new book, Finders Keepers: A Tale of Archaeological Plunder and Obsession, reads almost like a thriller, chock-full of vendettas, suicides and large-scale criminal enterprises dedicated to the multimillion-dollar trade in antiquities.
Childs tells NPR's Audie Cornish that emotions run high in the world of antiquities. "There's such an attachment to what is the right and wrong thing to do with these objects," he says. "What is legal? What is illegal? It really rises to the surface to where I know some archaeologists who want pot hunters dead, and I know pot hunters who want archaeologists dead." His book follows several families of pot hunters who ran afoul of the government after digging up relics on public land.
And many objects now in museums may not be legal, Childs says. For example, the famous Euphronios krater, an ancient Greek vessel for mixing wine and water, stood in the Metropolitan Museum of Art for almost 40 years. "You'd go into the Met and there it was, in its own display case," Childs says. "Just beautiful paintings of warriors and gods all around it, one of the finest Greek vessels ever found, and it was sold with paperwork that said, you know, this thing is legal." But an extensive investigation proved that the krater had been looted from an Etruscan tomb in Italy, and in 2008 the Met returned it to the Italian government.
Audio after the jump