Should it be illegal to purchase artefacts?

FOR thousands of years’ people have been removing ancient artefacts from where they were found for their own gain, selling them on for profit or displaying them in their own country. It is illegal to remove objects of archaeological or anthropological significance in an unauthorised or unregulated dig and artefacts are protected under Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict (1954)[1] and UNESCO Convention (1970) on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property[2]. This was in response to a booming black market in illicit goods around the globe, mainly from source countries such as Egypt and Syria to richer western countries. These agreements were the most pioneering in terms of international protection against the trafficking of artefacts but more recent measures have included measures against looting in Romania, Peru and Iraq.

If the ability to purchase was legal, there would be a wider distribution of artefacts that more people can learn from and appreciate. Instead of travelling to an object’s land of origin people can travel to their local museum or perhaps have a more mundane piece in their own home, eliciting more curiosity into global heritage and allowing more research to be carried out in a more inclusive manner. However, by doing this, especially in regard to selling to private collections, there is more of a chance of these artefacts disappearing or having no formal archiving carried out on them. Also, by putting more objects into private collections less people on a whole can appreciate a certain piece, particularly if it is of significant cultural significance.

Leonardo Patterson was in the lucrative trade of ancient artefacts for over 50 years, buying and selling Pre-Columbian art to high profile contacts in North America and Europe. Whilst he denies all accounts of smuggling goods, Patterson instead gained a reputation for selling counterfeits, as well as a few pieces of real worth such as an allegedly fake Olmec head, a fake Mayan fresco and turtle eggs from Mexico to name a few he was caught dealing. The UNESCO convention was an attempt against trade during the decades Patterson was active but it failed to be ratified quickly and Patterson only profited from the lawlessness. In the end, 6 countries including Mexico, Guatemala, Peru, Colombia, Ecuador and Costa Rica all filed law suits against him, demanding their artefacts be returned to them but new legislation regarding trading in antiques only applies to objects brought into Germany, where Patterson lives, after 2007 so no charges can be brought against him. Patterson justifies his actions by saying the they “come from a grave. Nobody put them in there and demanded a receipt. And now they have been dug up by chance”[3].

So what happened to all the artefacts that Patterson sold during his time as a dealer? We may never know the true outcome of perhaps thousands of artefacts from sites of archaeological interest in South America. Their provenance and access to proper facilities and documentation means that countless treasures and secrets are lost to high profile customers that may have since sold on but without the proper paper work to know what they truly are. If the ability to purchase ancient artefacts became illegal, there is no doubt that trading would become harder for the dealers and overall it would decrease. However, for it to be in any way effective, as seen in Patterson’s case, the measures would need to be tight and communications between countries clear for there to be any impact on all forms of trade.

Another measure to help curtail dealing, perhaps instead[4], or as well as, would be an increase in education into cultural heritage. It is said that the market is split between the rich and the poor countries. The poorer countries are the source for the artefacts yet whilst many have laws in place about taking objects out the country without the proper paper work, there is insufficient funding to enforce them. The rich countries are where the pieces are sold to but because there is not enough political pressure to stop the plundering and because it isn’t their heritage being exploited there is little done in the way of protection. By educating the public on the importance of cultural heritage, even if it be the rich countries because they have increased funding into museums and education, then there could be a sharp decrease in the theft of archaeological sites for the gain of the rich.

There is a booming business in war zones in Syria and Iraq where objects are sold out of the country to third parties. This means that these pieces are preserved from the war zones where there is a strong chance they could be damaged by bombs and other ammunition so by being legal, it makes it easier for the artefacts to be able to be removed from the country to protect them.  Whilst this may seem like a good idea, and it is happening, it is not in the safe and deliberate way assumes. Isis has been looting and selling on some of their greatest artefacts on the black market before blowing up the remains of the area in the hope that the evidence of the plundering disappears with it. This is having a profound effect on the area because Isis is both making a profit on the stolen items and blowing up the provenance of the objects so they cannot be identified. Particularly in places such as Samarra in Iraq and the ancient Roman city of Palmyra in Syria yet as the rate of destruction increases, so does the price of the artefacts.

If selling ancient artefacts became illegal and it was strictly regulated, Isis will find it harder to sell on the pieces they loot, thus saving both artefacts from being taken from their origin but also protecting their provenance because Isis will have less of an incentive to destroy the evidence. One a more political note, it would be beneficial to make purchasing illegal in terms of the ‘war on terror’ because it could potentially cut a main fund of them to continue so it would valuable also to the international community[5]. The UN Security Council has already banned trade in artefacts removed from Iraq since 1990 and Syria since 2011 but it hard to enforce[6], however it is still a major step towards making it illegal in the long-run and towards the preservation of future artefact finds.

There is also the question of ownership and whether artefacts should remain in the country where they were found even if that country didn’t even exist at the time. Artefacts belong to the wider community because they are the part of humanity’s heritage and the director of the Art Institute of Chicago James Cuno believes that “stewardship and broad access should take priority over legal ownership”. On the other hand, Neil Brodie a director at Stanford’s Archaeological Center argues that pieces removed from where they were found simply become ‘antiquities’ and it is “about sovereignty, not ownership”[7]. A balance of the two is probably the best way to continue, with international agreements over certain artefacts and collections on longer term or permanent loan to avoid any tensions between ownership and access. Museums around the world have also gained a reputation of holding illegally excavated artefacts such as the J. Paul Getty Museum in Rome so by making them illegal to purchase it can start to curtail the number of artefacts that are sold illegally.

A limestone block (featured image) dating back to 2323-2150 BC (6th dynasty) was stolen from at the tomb of Imep-Hor in Kom el-Khamsin, South Saqqara, Egypt in 1999 which was on display at the Alexandra Irigoyen art gallery in Madrid. It soon became apparent that the block came from Galerias F. Cervera, a well known auction house in Barcelona which has connections to the black market [8] . The block has since been returned to Egypt after officials verified the piece and Spanish authorities agreed to the transfer[10].

The limestone block was an example of how illegally excavated items almost always end up in museums and private collections outside of their own provenance without the proper paperwork to determine their true heritage and worth so an attempt to inhibit the trade would be a huge leap towards fewer artefacts disappearing into the black market.

To conclude, it should be illegal to purchase ancient artefacts where the laws are thoroughly enforced because there needs to be some measure of protection for humanity’s heritage. Many objects are being sold on to private collectors and museums after they were illegally excavated so an international law could help to end the trade. It also means that pieces are taken away from their provenance, rendering them void which is almost as bad as them disappearing all together. By making it illegal, it can also help international tensions because Isis uses the trade of illegal artefacts to fund militants but the main damage they commit in the destruction of the temples and great structures they subsequently bomb. Therefore, by making it illegal, or even global education into the value of our cultural heritage, will help to preserve precious artefacts for future generations to enjoy and learn about the past to further their own curiosity.

[1] (UNESCO, 1954)

[2] (UNESCO, 1970)

[3] (Hammerstein)

[4] although this not a strong enough implementation to really help the problem

[5] (Fisk)

[6] (Shabi)

[7] (Stanford University)

[8] (Antiques)

[10] (El-Aref)