It was hidden amid the vegetables in the donkey cart driving to Djenne's Monday market. But the spies of Amadou Kamara could tell something was wrong.
Sure enough, when the cart was stopped and searched one day in 1995, the culture watchdogs found a priceless 13th-century funeral urn. The peasant driver was let off the hook after he revealed the name of the middleman who meant to spirit the terra cotta treasure out of Mali.
Mr. Kamara, who works for the state-run cultural mission in this medieval Malian town, recalls with pride that battle in what appears to be a winning war to save Mali's antiquities from pillagers.
Running his hand against stacks of statuettes and vessels in the mission's storerooms, he explains his formula to stop plunderers from taking advantage of Africa's poverty.
Villagers enlisted as informants maintain watch in markets and their hamlets. They bring reports of suspected misdeeds back to the mission's red-carved doors.
The result, after four years of cultural espionage, is a 95 percent decline in plundering. "We persuaded the local people of the objects' worth. Then we got them involved. It seems to work," Kamara says.
For the US government, which has targeted Mali as a partner worthy of support, Djenne's crackdown on thieves is inspirational. "It is incredible what they have done," says Jeremy Carper, public information officer at the US Embassy in the capital, Bamako. "It is amazing."
Mali is one of Africa's few tourist destinations that lure visitors for art rather than game reserves. Its pottery and cloth are renowned, as are the fabled sites of Tombouctou (Timbuktu) and Dogon country.