Reforming the Trade in Antiquities

We take great care in ensuring good provenance for all our pieces, both for our own protection and for diminishing the incentives to loot. In fact we regularly reject many items offered to us for this reason. All our items are consigned or purchased from carefully vetted legal sources, either legitimate dealers, established auction houses or individual collectors we have good reason to be confident in.


The current politically correct laws and attitudes that greatly restrict the trade in ancient art have the unintended consequence of making looting worse by driving it further unground, increasing prices and thereby criminal profits, causing greater loss of archaeological context by driving the trade further underground, and encouraging the fraudulent trade in fake antiquities.

Rather than enemies, collectors and dealers are the natural allies of archaeology and source countries wanting to protect their cultural heritage. All of us love the past and want to protect it, and collectors and dealers are willing to put their money where their mouths are with respect to this.

Current laws worldwide should be brought into line with the English Treasure Trove law as a model. The UK encourages amateur metal detecting. As a result a large army of amateurs discovers great numbers of new archaeological items that archaeologists would never find. All items found are freely reported to the authorities because the finders know they will be compensated at full market value for their discoveries. Museums have first choice of all discovered items to purchase at full market value from the finder. If museums don't want the items they become the property of the finder to sell on the open market.

This system works for both the collecting community and archeology because:
There is a strong incentive for finders to search for new discoveries.
Many more items are found than would be otherwise.
Finder (and land owner) receive full market value for any finds.
All finds retain full archaeological context.
National museums get the best material.
There is a free and fair and open antiquities market in which items have verified archaeological context.
This greatly diminishes the problem of fake antiquities on the market which is a major area of fraud in the US and other countries.

In addition to this another thing that should be done that would enrich archaeology and greatly diminish looting is for source countries to sell off their millions of unneeded duplicate antiquities that currently lie deteriorating in warehouses into a free, open and legal market. What most people in the US don't understand is that there are millions upon millions of common type antiquities in existence in source countries that archaeologists will never study.

If source countries would simply sell these unneeded duplicates onto a free and open legal market they could generate large revenue streams that would greatly expand their ability to conduct new digs and better preserve the best material in their museums, and their often deteriorating public archaeological sites.

This would preserve the provenance of pieces on the market, ensure they are certified genuine by archaeologists and greatly diminish new looting and fake antiquities at the same time.

There are many other important and complex issues I don't have time to go into right now.

Consider the not uncommon case of a rural farming family living in extreme poverty barely able to feed their children. They discover a cache of antiquities on their land. They know their oppressive government claims all antiquities belong to it rather than the land owner or finder. They are faced with the choice of selling their finds illegally and giving their children a better future and perhaps even enough food to eat, surrendering the finds to a government which operates for the benefit of the most likely corrupt oligarchs who oppress them, or just leaving them in the ground never to see the light of day.

I ask you which is the moral and ethical choice? And who are we to judge them and condemn them as looters?

This last example should NOT be taken as a defense of looting. I'm just pointing out that there are difficult ethical choices made by very poor people faced with trying to improve the lives of their children. It's easy for us sitting in our comfortable living rooms to condemn them but they must choose among the actually available alternates rather than artificial ideal ones imposed from outside.

Again, the best solution in this case is to adopt the UK Treasure Trove model worldwide so that the poor are able to receive fair market value for their finds by bringing them to the attention of the proper authorities. In this way the archaeological context is preserved, and the criminal network of middleman smugglers no longer exists because national antiquities authorities sell all the duplicate items into a legal, fully documented antiquities market. This is basic common sense don't you think? It's a win win solution for everyone involved and would greatly enrich the world's cultural heritage and its appreciation.

Some might argue that many source countries may not have the funds to pay finders for archaeological discoveries, but if those source countries were actively selling their duplicates into a legalized market those proceeds could be used to acquire new finds to upgrade their collections. And remember, only the most important new finds would be purchased by state museums, the large majority of finds unneeded by the state would become the legal property of the finder/land owner. So funding is not the problem here as the plan I am suggesting would be self supporting.

Of course everyone wants documented provenance of every change of hands in an item's history nowadays but this is simply not realistic as provenance for minor items only became important in the last 10-20 years and vast numbers of pieces date back to well before that when no one cared about provenance including the authorities.

The rush to condemn all antiquities without long documented provenances assumes everyone is guilty until proven innocent and makes a mockery of the American system in which everyone is supposed to be innocent unless proven guilty.