By Paul Sussman for CNN
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(CNN) -- She's 2,500 years old, stunningly beautiful and at the center of the latest smuggling scandal to have sullied the world of antiquities.
On Monday the Los Angeles-based J. Paul Getty Museum announced it would return a sixth century B.C. marble statue of a young woman to Greece following claims by the Greek government that the artwork was illegally excavated and taken out of the country without proper authority.
The statue is one of two ancient artifacts on their way back to the Aegean from the display cases of the Getty Villa in Malibu -- the section of the J. Paul Getty Museum specializing in classical remains from Greece and Italy. The other is a fourth century B.C. gold funerary wreath.
"It is the appropriate way to resolve complex ownership claims involving ancient works of art," declared a museum statement.
It is not the first time the Getty has been linked with stolen artworks -- the museum's former antiquities curator, Marion True, is currently awaiting trial in Rome charged with conspiracy to receive plundered artifacts. True strenuously denies the charges.
While the involvement of the Getty name has inevitably made headlines, however, the objects concerned are simply the tip of a vast iceberg of illegally smuggled artifacts that have, over the years, made their way into public and private collections around the globe.
So valuable is the trade in stolen artworks -- which includes, but is not limited to ancient pieces -- that it is now estimated to be worth almost as much as the drug trafficking industry.
And while the academic association of these objects lends the trade a vague air of greater respectability than many other illegal activities, law enforcement agencies and antiquities experts are unequivocal in labeling it every bit as damaging and criminal as the smuggling of narcotics, weapons or human beings.
"It (the illegal antiquities trade) is tawdry, degrading and immoral," leading British archaeologist Professor Colin Renfrew has declared.
"Antiquities without provenance, lacking an archaeological history or context, have almost certainly been looted, wrenched from their sites by explosives which have destroyed their surrounds. This is a crime against humanity."
Not all museum and private collections, of course, are made up of stolen objects.
Institutions such as the British Museum and the Louvre in Paris, for instance, built up their antiquities collections perfectly legally during the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, long before international laws governing the purchase and export of antiquities had been introduced.
That is not to say that such collections -- or certain objects within them -- are not subject to controversy.
The British Museum, for instance, is involved in an ongoing dispute with the Greek government over repatriation of the so-called Elgin, or Parthenon Marbles, removed from the Parthenon in Athens in 1806 by Lord Elgin and brought back to the UK with the approval of the Ottoman authorities that at the time ruled over Greece.
The same museum is likewise resisting attempts by Zahi Hawass, head of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, to give up the famed Rosetta Stone -- named after the northern Egyptian town of Rosetta where it was found in 1799 -- an artifact crucial to the decipherment of hieroglyphs.
Berlin's Egyptian Museum, meanwhile, is also in dispute with Hawass, this time over ownership of the legendary bust of the 18th Dynasty Egyptian Queen Nefertiti which forms the centerpiece of the museum's collection.
That controversy exploded into a war of words in 2003 when the museum removed the bust from its secure case and temporarily displayed it atop a scantily-clad, life-sized bronze body, an action the Egyptian Culture Minister Hosni Farouk described as "reckless, irresponsible and unethical."
If the world of antiquities collecting is inherently shot through with argument and dispute, however, this must be separated out from the controversy surrounding the sale and purchase of manifestly illegal items.
These are objects that have either been stolen from museums and archaeological storerooms, or else dug up in unauthorized excavations, and then spirited away from their country of origin and sold abroad, in direct contravention of both national and international law.
This illegal trade, which has been fueled by the rise of the Internet and sales portals such as eBay, is stripping countries of their cultural heritage at an alarming rate, hampering the study of the past and drawing in ruthless criminal gangs who see antiquities as a less risky way of making a quick buck than other forms of criminal activity.
Although estimates vary, the value of the trade has been put as high as $4 billion annually.
Nor is it confined to a few high-status objects from a small group of countries. On the contrary, it involves tens of thousands of artifacts -- possibly hundreds of thousands -- from archaeological sites across the world.
Greece, Italy, Egypt, Turkey, Thailand, Cambodia, China, Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Mali and Nigeria are just a few of the many countries that have experienced archaeological looting on a shocking scale.
In Central America, for instance, it is estimated that some $10 million worth of artifacts are looted every month. In Peru Dr. Walter Alva of the National Bruning Museum says his country has seen more archaeological pillage in the last 50 years than in the previous 400.
In Thailand, meanwhile, archaeologist Rachanie Thosarat has described the destruction of prehistoric sites as a "cultural catastrophe."
The rape of Iraq
One of the most dramatic, and disturbing waves of recent looting has been in Iraq, where the chaos unleashed by the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 has seen archaeological looting and theft on an unprecedented scale.
Italian Pietro Cordone, a former cultural affairs advisor to the Coalition Provisional Authority, described in one report how "the looters stop at nothing. They use trucks, excavators and armed guards to steal objects of great value without being disturbed."
And what happens to these objects? This is the key to the trade in illegal antiquities, because -- like the drugs trade -- it is fueled less by supply than by demand.
There appears to be an insatiable desire, especially in the wealthier countries of the developed world, for archaeological relics -- both among private collectors and certain unscrupulous public institutions. While demand remains high, all attempts on both a national and international level to contain and reduce the trade seem ultimately doomed to failure.
"The peasants who dig the objects out of the ground do so because there are people who pay good money for them," Professor Renfrew declared in 2004 interview with the BBC.
"They are the innocent wrongdoers. The people who pay money for antiquities when they have no idea where they're from -- they're the people I would blame.
"Curators, museum directors who willingly purchase or accept as bequests material they know they have no provenance for, they're the real villains, the real pushers who drive this trade."
The actions of institutions such as the Getty in returning objects to their countries of origin is certainly a welcome development.
In a separate deal both the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and Boston's Museum of Fine Arts recently returned a total of 34 treasures to Italy, in exchange for the loan of other items.
It is a drop in the ocean, however, when compared with the wave of art treasures that continue to be looted and exported illegally across the world.
Religion, Karl Marx memorably wrote, is the opium of the people. Historical artifacts, it seems, are fast becoming the heroin.
This marble statue of a young woman is on its way back to Greece.
THE BRIEFING ROOM