New York University professor R.R.R. Smith was walking down Madison Avenue last September, on his way to a cash machine, when he spotted a familiar face.
Displayed in the window of the Fortuna Fine Arts Gallery was an ancient marble bust of a young man, an artifact Mr. Smith knew had disappeared from the archaeological dig in Turkey where he had worked the previous summer. Now it was being offered for sale in Manhattan.
"Let's say I was very surprised," he recalls.
Mr. Smith, a professor of classical art and archaeology, contacted Turkish officials. Their New York lawyer soon alerted the FBI that Turkey wanted the bust back.
The gallery owners denied the artifact was stolen. But when federal authorities prepared to launch a criminal investigation of Turkey's complaint, Fortuna quickly relented and returned the bust to Turkey.
The looting of ancient riches is as old as antiquity, but the Fortuna dispute highlights a stepped-up response.
Art-rich countries like Turkey, aided by the United Nations and U.S. authorities, are making greater efforts to crack down on what they call a wide-open international trade in plundered treasures and artwork, a trade they say is hijacking their cultural heritage, jeopardizing tourism and destroying scientific clues to humanity's common past.
"The whole cultural heritage of some nations is being looted by local people and finding its way to America and Europe," says Said Zulficar, director of operation activities at UNESCO's Division of Cultural Heritage.
The issue of "cultural patrimony," as it's often called, has stirred fierce debate as many top museums and galleries are being pressured to give up artifacts, even when they deny having done anything wrong.
At the same time, U.S. officials have been stepping up prosecutions of those who plunder American sites, from the Revolutionary War battlefield in Saratoga, N.Y., to the burial grounds of the ancient Anasazi in the Southwest.
"Unfortunately, archaeological sites are now like endangered species," says Martin McAllister, an archaeologist who trains park rangers at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Glynco, Ga. "Places like Civil War battlefields are systematically targeted and destroyed, and they can never be replaced. Once it's looted, it's gone."
Looting the world's past is a more than $1 billion-a-year illicit RTC trade, second only to drug trafficking, according to several federal officials and international agencies dealing with the problem.
The impact is felt in places like Cambodia, where the stunning beauty of Angkor Wat, once the heart of the Khmer empire which ruled much of Southeast Asia 700 years ago, is rapidly being plundered away.
In one 1993 assault, looters used a grenade-launcher to blast open a warehouse door, taking gold figurines and nine statues worth more than $500,000, says John Stubbs, program director for the World Monument Fund, a non-profit foundation.
The thieves usually sell their booty to dealers in Thailand. Last year, Mr. Stubb says, a Thai dealer showed him a photo of ancient artwork from the same Angkor Wat site that he had been studying and working to save. "It was offered to me to be stolen for order and then shipped to New York if I wanted," recalls Mr. Stubbs.
U.S Customs and other investigators say that some collectors are not careful about checking an artifact's past. "I know of a lot of shops along Madison that sell artifacts, and you have to wonder, 'Where do some of these things come from?' " says Constance Lowenthal, chief New York investigator for the International Foundation for Art Research.
But many in the New York art world say the problem is being exaggerated, that the new aggressiveness on looting will be culturally destructive. Collecting primitive and ancient artifacts, they contend, helped preserve many great works that probably would have been damaged or destroyed if they remained in their original nations.
In addition, many museums and reputable dealers say the increasing number of recovery claims by nations like Turkey cast unfair suspicions on their business. Most insist on checking the provenance (history of ownership) of each piece before buying it, they say, to ensure that laws were not violated.
"We do not want ever to be involved in a case where there is stolen property from a country, or property that is looted," says Marjorie Stone, Sotheby's general counsel. "It's against the interests of both my company and, frankly, the cultural well-being of the world."
The conflict over "who owns the past" is expected to come to a head next month at an international conference in Rome aimed at drafting a stricter global accord on protecting antiquities.
The existing UNESCO accord, reached in 1970, says artifacts can be exported only with the permission of the nation where they were found. It also requires nations to return artifacts documented as stolen. The new proposal, called Unidroit, would require a nation to return any artifact that another nation deems part of its cultural heritage, even if theft cannot be proven.
The United States has not yet taken a formal position on Unidroit, which is being pushed by Turkey, Greece, Italy and other so-called "victim nations." But American art dealers are fighting it, saying it could require major museums and galleries to close.
"We're adamantly opposed to Unidroit, because it puts American collections at great risk," says Peter Marks, a New York City gallery owner and president of the National Association of Dealers in Ancient, Oriental and Primitive Art.
Congress would have to approve Unidroit before it would apply to U.S. institutions. And since it took 12 years for Congress to sign on to the 1970 accord, quick action seems unlikely.
In trying to recover plundered treasures, most legal claims by foreign nations focus on the 1970 UNESCO agreement that prohibits unapproved exportation of cultural objects.
Artifacts taken from their original country before 1970 generally do not wind up in legal fights.