The trade in ancient artifacts and artwork is the most heavily maligned, scrutinized, and regulated of the entire art and antique market. It is also among the most financially insignificant sectors of the art market. The antiquities trade has long suffered from disparaging criticism from a small but extremely vocal group of detractors who insist that collecting ancient art invariably encourages looting and destruction of archaeological sites. In recent years this unsubstantiated claim has gained remarkable traction.
As a result, several American museums have been coerced into giving objects to foreign governments that have claimed them as their rightful property purely for political purposes. American collectors and art dealers as well have been forced to repeatedly defend themselves against all manner of claims by foreign governments for countless pieces of art work that have been dispersed around the globe. Increasingly, Americans have had to defend themselves in costly litigation against foreign governments who use American lawyers, US Customs, and Homeland Security, and the Press to pursue spurious claims against US citizens. At the same time these foreign nations do very little to protect their archaeological resources or stem the tide of illicit excavation on their own soil. The old paradigm of “antiquities collecting equals destruction of cultural heritage and therefore must be abolished” is naïve at best and slanderous at worst. The time has come to reassess the situation.
First, the often repeated assumption that all antiquities in US museums and private collections were ‘looted’ from sites in foreign countries is absurd. The inhabitants of archaeologically rich areas like Egypt, Greece, Turkey, and Italy have recognized the wealth beneath their feet since the demise of ancient civilizations. Mining of ancient sites for dressed stone, metal, and anything else of value has occurred without interruption since the Middle Ages. Most early Medieval churches were built on the foundations of demolished Greek and Roman temples. Virtually all of the tombs in the Valley of the Kings were ransacked centuries before Europeans ever came upon them.
By the 18th century, when curious Western European travelers began to explore the Eastern Mediterranean, they found local inhabitants in the advanced stages of destroying their archaeological heritage. They began to purchase, collect, and study the objects that were continually coming to light in these lands from locals who often had little interest in them. It was these first collectors who cherished these ancient objects that created the modern discipline of Archaeology. Through the 19th and 20th centuries collections were formed that through donation or purchase became the cores of the great art collections of not only western museums but also those in source countries. Museums in Athens, Cairo, and Rome are filled with objects from private collections that were not scientifically excavated. Collecting in this case was directly responsible for preserving objects for study and appreciation for many generations to come. An object found by chance and donated to a museum in Turkey is as well preserved as the same object donated to a museum in Chicago. Museums and private collectors need not be ashamed of purchasing and looking after antiquities that may not have come to light through documented excavations.
Second, it is often repeated, but seldom explained, that once an object has been divorced from its archaeological context or find spot, it has lost all of its invaluable academic information. In reality this is only true in the rarest of cases. An Athenian vase, in the hands of an expert, can tell us when, where, and by whom it was made regardless of whether it came from a tomb in Tuscany, Athens, Libya, or the Crimea. The data is preserved within the object whether it is in a museum in Greece or on the auction block at Sotheby’s. In fact the piece on the auction block at Sotheby’s is much more available to academics than a piece that is in the storeroom of an underfunded museum in a small Greek town. An Egyptian statue can tell us exactly when, where, and for whom it was made regardless of where it is now. The argument of repatriation is untenable as evidenced by recent political events. Our shared cultural heritage is better spread around the globe than stored in one place. By the same logic used by archaeologists, France should claim that every French impressionist painting must be returned to France. The argument has been taken to its most absurd limit with the recent implementation of statutes by which nations like Italy and Greece can claim any one of the millions of ancient coins that were minted in ancient cities that fall within the borders of their current nations as their sole property regardless of where they were excavated and when. It is quite a task for US customs officials to gain doctorate level knowledge of ancient numismatics so that US collectors do not obtain any ancient coins that the rulers of modern foreign nations claim as their own property. It is bad enough that a modern Greek citizen who finds an ancient Greek coin worth $100 while digging in his vegetable garden is required to hand it over to a government official or risk imprisonment, but now the US collector has to worry that he may be held accountable to the same Draconian foreign law that would be unconstitutional in our own country. In response to the recently implemented US memorandum of understanding with Greece instituting these impractical trade regulations on ancient coins, an overwhelming majority of US citizens who voiced their opinion on the memorandum disproved, but to no avail.
The antiquities trade is a small sector of the art market whose total annual sales has never exceeded a few hundred million dollars. The highest prices are paid for objects with well documented provenances and lengthy publication history. Objects with little or no provenance are rejected by dealers, collectors, and auction houses alike as bad investments. The UNESCO agreement which was created in 1970 and ratified by the US in 1983 has proven effective at stopping the pillaging and destruction of sites in many countries. The UNESCO agreement was enacted to protect culturally important objects but has since been perverted to include all ancient objects regardless of cultural or monetary value. As such current customs regulations have made it nearly impossible to import antiquities even when they have documented old provenance. The administrative apparatus constructed to combat the illicit trade continues to grow to the point where there are probably more people employed in this country to monitor the antiquities trade than there are people employed in it. The perfectly legitimate trade in ancient art continues to shrink as the business of maligning, monitoring, and legislating against the trade continues to grow unabated.
The level of self-flagellation over Western collector’s so-called cultural imperialism has today reached its zenith. US citizens who choose to collect ancient art do so in an environment that is the most heavily scrutinized in the world. Whereas a Saudi, Russian, Chinese, or even Greek collector can buy pieces on the open market with little fear of being branded a criminal and being forced to forfeit his possessions, an American collector has increasingly little assurance of that notion. It would not be of great concern to most of the public if it weren’t costing US tax payer’s money spent on enforcement, litigation, and the myriad of other costs associated with pursuing the politically motivated claims of a handful of countries which already receive millions of dollars in US tourism and outright foreign aid. Nor is it of great concern to most that the continued witch-hunt it is jeopardizing US small businessmen’s livelihoods. Similarly most people aren’t terribly concerned that it is causing US museums to turn away objects that would enhance their collections or send objects that were bought in good faith many years ago to foreign nations that claim them rather than endure bad press and costly litigation. If nothing else, it may seem distasteful to most Americans that US law enforcement rather than focusing solely on the application of US laws and the protection of our citizens and borders, is spending an inordinate amount of time, energy, and money chasing after American antiquities and coin collectors. When they are successful in doing the police work which is not done on the ground in the source countries, they repatriate the objects to nations of the people that dug them up and sold them, foremost among them are the financially strapped nations of Greece and Italy, the chaotic post-revolutionary nation of Egypt, and the war torn nations of Iraq and Syria. There these repatriated objects will join many hundreds of thousands of similar pieces hidden in storerooms of shuttered museums that await future political stability and western largesse to pay for operating costs.
The most basic tenet of the anti-antiquities trade camp is that the destruction of archaeological sites will diminish if American collectors and museums cease acquiring and preserving antiquities. This ideology is flawed and naïve. As the pace of development increases in archaeologically rich countries more and more objects will be discovered by unprofessional excavators. No amount of chastising American collectors and museums will stop human beings from digging in the ground in countries like Egypt and Iraq where western archaeologists are completely impotent to enact change in the way that the populace regards its ancient heritage. It is time to stop blaming US art collectors and museums who have been major benefactors of excavation, scholarship, and preservation of ancient sites across the globe. The destruction of archaeological sites is solely the fault of nations which do not teach their people about their archaeological heritage or stand by and watch as their archaeological sites are pillaged in broad daylight with heavy machinery. Shaming Americans will not cause Egyptians to respect their past or the unreasonable laws of their nation. US taxpayer’s should not be paying our government agencies to do the work that source countries refuse to do themselves. Nor should US citizens who choose to preserve ancient artwork through collecting fear their own government will act as enforcers of despots on the other side of the globe who deny their citizens of personal property rights that we hold dear in this country.
Sed quis custodiet ipsos custodes