The illicit traffic in antiquities is the world's second biggest criminal activity. Only drug smuggling supersedes the scope of artifact thievery.
''There is big money in this illegal trade in ancient artifacts,'' says James Wiseman, archaeology and classics chairman at Boston University.''But,'' he adds , ''what is really being bought and sold is a country's cultural heritage.''
Although their pictures don't hang on post-office walls, Mr. Wiseman says participants in the illegal trade include:
* Tourists who bring home souvenirs such as pre-Columbian artifacts.
* Art dealers who seek to fill the demands of an ever-growing market for art.
* Museums that ''purchase'' antiquities from less-than-reputable sources.
* Investment firms that pitch antiquities as ''assets for the future.''
* Grave robbers and mercenaries who plunder sites for profit.
Mr. Wiseman, who has testified before congressional committees considering legislation aimed at curbing the illegal traffic, is concerned that the public's appetite for ancient objects has led to widespread destruction of valuable archaeological sites.
He is also editor-in-chief of the university's Journal of Field Archaeology. One Journal issue published photographs and descriptions of art objects stolen from a Turkish museum. Within a day the objects appeared anonymously on the steps of the Turkish Embassy in New York.