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.
A must-see on the tourist trail is Djenne, one of the oldest trading towns along the Saharan caravan routes, which for 500 years were a vital crossroads for gold and salt trades. Djenne's highlight is its North African-style mosque, which looms out of the labyrinth of streets like a giant sand castle. A blue-and-white sign proclaims the building under protection as a United Nations world heritage site.
More vulnerable are the clay statuettes and urns that tempt smugglers to raid the 2,000-year-old archaeological sites 15 miles outside town. Artifacts are officially protected under some of Africa's strictest export laws. But hundreds of priceless objects have been smuggled out nonetheless.
The thieves smuggle their quarry in suitcases or cars to neighboring countries and then fly to Belgium, which has not signed the UNESCO convention to protect world heritage sites.
Most coveted are statuettes of snakes, fish, and humans, which fetch as much as $1 million. Pillagers also seize ancient beads and necklaces from Tombouctou.
Authorities are more troubled by the loss of national heritage than the financial loss, says the head of Djenne's cultural mission, Boubacar Diaby. "Every time they steal an object, we lose a page of history," he says.
Those found guilty are punished with maximum jail sentences of three years coupled with fines of $40,000. What the authorities are after are the middlemen, not the peasants paid to seize the pieces.
Archaeologists have also quickened the pace of digging to prevent more stealing. They have done an inventory on 830 sites, whose treasures are brought to the cultural mission for safekeeping.
Guards are posted at the mission's front door 24 hours a day. Bags of silver bracelets, bronze and iron tools, and pottery are kept in locked storerooms. "Nothing has been stolen from the mission," Kamara says with pride. Then he pauses. "Yet."