Friday, April 13, 2007

Q&A on Collecting Ancient Items

The following is a summary Q & A that encompasses conversations I have had with academics in this field. The resulting discussion had made me rethink Collecting Ancient items, and what kind of destruction is can create. It should also answer any questions anyone has in this field and confirm what my position on this area is.

I will no longer be collecting any items that are unprovenanced and will even heavily limit the purchase of provenanced items.

This website is meant to be educational and to act as a reference quide for people who are interested in Roman and Ancient History. I also hope that it will now serve as an educational guide for all those out there who continue to collect unprovenanced items, and inform them of the legal and ethical issues that surround it.

If anyone has comments, I will certainly engage them in that discussion.



Legal Issues:

The items bought on E-bay usually come with no provenance information. Neither do you know who is selling them, or from where. It is entirely possibly (in fact likely) that these objects were either stolen from an existing repository, or were illegally excavated, and then illegally sold and exported. You are right in that some countries do not explicitly forbid the sale of antiquities, however, many do. These countries have ratified the 1970 UNESCO Convention on Illicit Trafficking. If you take a look at the latest list, several countries from the Balkans (from which some of your materials originate) have signed it.

More importantly is the fact that Canada signed the 1970 UNESCO Convention on Illicit Trafficking; this means that Canadian citizens must obey the laws from which materials were exported and can face prosecution for buying materials that were illegally exported from those countries and brought into Canada.

Other Canadian websites show Canada’s policy of discouraging the purchase of unprovenanced materials that do not come with proper exportation documents (though objects can easily come with documents forged by unscrupulous dealers). At the very least, you should have copies of sales receipts and shipping documents from the countries of origin to show how the objects were acquired and by whom, and they made it into North America. However, if there is any doubt that you knew or suspected that the materials you’ve purchased were not legally obtained and/or exported, you are technically breaking the law. This is stated clearly in Canada’s Cultural Property Export and Import Act, Section 37

This act also sets up a system by which countries which have signed the UNESCO convention can petition to have their material returned.

Also take a look at Heritage Canada’s website on illicit traffic in cultural property:

The European Union has also developed treaties to protect archaeological heritage; these treaties have been ratified by most EU nations

The main problem with enforcing these laws and prosecuting people who are engaged in illegally purchasing objects (and particularly less significant pieces) is the lack of resources on the part of either the originating (“source”) country or the destination country. In fact, the problem of the lack of resources to stop illegal excavation or export has been well documented in the Balkan nations [Croatia, Bosnia Herzogovina, Serbia, Montenegro, Albania, Macedonia, Bulgaria] as well, with archaeological sites being looted and stripped because there isn’t enough money or personnel to stop or prosecute it.

Here are a few websites demonstrating this active problem:

Laws protecting cultural property in the former Yugoslavia

Problems with illegal trafficking in Macedonia:

I also looked into how E-bay might allow for archaeological artifacts with no collection information to be sold. E-bay has a policy that all objects listed on the website follow established laws for whichever country is involved. Unfortunately, this policy appears to depend on the honesty of the seller, and therefore is probably not well policed.

Other websites which show the international efforts to stop the illegal trade of antiquities follow:

The UNIDROIT Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects

International Council on Monuments and Sites

US State Department, Office of Cultural Property

The International Council of Museums

Object ID

The Art Loss Register

Museum Security Network

A blog which brings together news items on illicit art

QUESTIONS RAISED: Internet and Collecting.

One thing is blatantly clear, and that is the fact that Ebay and the Internet in general have opened the flood gates on something that I suspect was a much different “industry” prior to the advent of the Internet. Those treaties drafted in 1972 were made long before the first personal computer was even a reality. Those laws were designed for black market trade of high-end antiquities for wealthy persons who wanted to adorn their business foyers or mansion libraries with rare Antiquities.

That however has completely changed. Where as before one would have had to have direct connections with criminals and their organizations to facilitate the purchase of Antiquities, today that is not the case. One simply has to open an Ebay account and can then make purchases as spectacular as a completely authentic Roman Legionary helmet for $20,000 US. (which I have actually seen before)

Clearly the unregulated aspects of Ebay as well as its wide reach to the “average” citizen, has created a situation where the illicit sale and import/export of Antiquities is running rampant. Any person, even with a remote curiosity in artifacts can make a purchase that in some way most likely (at least after the research you showed me) has been as a result of the looting of an Archeological site.

The law certainly has not caught up with this phenomenon, but that is something I am used to seeing especially in my profession! The Internet and these online auctions are run in sort of a “wild west” fashion it would seem.

Ethical Issues:

Some people are purchasing items in order to study them and preserve them, and feel that if they did not do so, these objects would be lost forever. Unfortunately, often these individual items come at the cost of damaging intact archaeological sites; for example, a sword still in place within a site (and perhaps next to human remains, pottery, architectural remains, food remains) tells us far more about the history and the context in which that sword was used than as a sword in isolation. Archaeology has not done a good job of communicating with the public the importance of archaeological context, which tells us far more than isolated (but often glorified) artifacts. Knowing the exact location of, and the context of an artifact really does allow a more scientific and complete understanding of a culture and a time period. Once an object is ripped out of context (often resulting in the damage of the context itself), all of the information it once contained is destroyed.

Another important issue is that by purchasing these objects, you are lessening the cultural patrimony of whatever nation they came from. If you think about it, most Canadians would be upset if archaeological materials recently excavated in Canada were making their way across international borders to be admired and possessed by non-Canadians. For almost all nations, artifacts (and particularly archaeological artifacts) are an important link with their history as nations and carry with them an enormous sense of pride and cultural value. Of course many developing nations are often struggling with bigger economic and social problems than making sure that their archaeological heritage doesn’t disappear, but when there is time, money and scholarship to make scientific archaeology possibly, a lot of the most important sites will be destroyed.

Here’s just one example from Iraq:

Also, by purchasing items from e-bay or other internet sites, you could be exposing yourself to buying fake or heavily restored items. Basically there is no guarantee that you are getting an “authentic” artifact. Not only could this mean a waste of your resources, but also a waste of resources which could go towards important research and preservation. This kind of purchasing also encourages the trade in fakes which is ultimately detrimental to art historical and archaeological studies.


1.) Artifacts are being destroyed daily by farming and urbanization all over the world. From what I’ve read fertilizers can degrade artifacts more in a couple of years that the previous 2000! Saving them in a un Archeological way is better then having them destroyed for ever by our own pollution. (just look at what acid rain has done to marble monuments in Italy)


The concern about saving something now, in whatever possible form rather than losing it all is a major one. This is actually a very long standing problem and clearly there is no one solution to it. Historically, many sites were found precisely because of farmers working in fields, or roads and railroads being built through an area. It is a constant struggle and most archaeologists acknowledge that information is always lost to development, or basic land use. But, once people who work in these areas start to feel that there is monetary gain to be made from selling the objects they find, this results in more clandestine digging, which can actually damage parts of the site that might otherwise have remained intact. So acknowledging that individual artifacts have monetary value (as well as historical value) will inadvertently encourage more looting.

Recently, a project to build a subway in Rome has resulted in trouble because they hit archaeological material (how could they not?) and all work had to be stopped and the plans modified before they could continue—but that often only works in cases where the sites are so important and well known and well-policed that there is no getting around it.

On a site site in Egypt, they have a lot a problems where the two towns which have historically existed next to, and in cases on top of the archaeological site are now encroaching more and more onto the site. They are in danger of losing information to farming, new housing construction and the community trash heap. In this case, the archaeologists have to collaborate with local authorities to get permission to dig (so called “salvage archaeology”) before any new construction happens. Of course this means digging more quickly than one usually wants to because otherwise the land will get taken over, or maybe local people will realize there is stuff there to be found and sold and may undertake clandestine digging. It’s nerve-wracking and one can never ensure that everything survives, but at least the areas that are scientifically excavated will provide more useful information than those which have big holes in them from illicit digging.


2.) Museums have basements filled with artifacts that have not seen the light of day since the moment they were “properly excavated” from a site. The result is that important artifacts that no one but a few people and the museum curator even know about end up sitting collecting dust.


Sadly, there are many thousands of excavations where finds are not properly published, nor are the findings made available to the public, or even just the academic community. This is acknowledged as a major problem in archaeology. Things are changing slowly in some places—for example, in Egypt, if you do not publish your findings within 5 years of excavating, you lose your “concession” or ability to excavate a site. I think these kinds of enforcement are good and force archaeologists to make their information (if not their artifacts) public. And certainly there are probably millions of properly excavated artifacts which are somewhere in storage collecting dust as you say. However, I must emphasize that the most important aspect of these properly excavated materials is the information about how/where/in connection to what they were found. Not everything that comes out of the ground is a spectacular find, and I’ve certainly seen this first hand at my own site. But what makes them meaningful is their significance as a collection of objects (even if, or particularly if none of the objects are “amazing” by themselves—i.e., not a statue of Marcus Aurelius, but maybe a collection of sherds associated with a burial, an ancient workshop, a bakery, etc.).


3.) Collectors can sometimes put pressure on the academic world to publish their items as they have the money and connections to get things done.


There is no doubt that rich and well-connected collectors have a certain pull with curators and archaeologists and art historians. They have to be cultivated by museums or universities because they can donate sums or collections which make a huge difference to often financially strapped institutions. But this is, in cases, an uneasy relationship. For example, the Getty has had a relationship with the Lawrence and Barbara (edited), important art collectors under Marion (edited), the curator who is now on trial in both Italy and Greece for buying illegal antiquities. She published their collection (thus giving it a “provenance” of sorts) even though it was known to contain pieces that were possibly illegally acquired, and this caused a huge scandal in the art world. The Metr**** Museum has had the support of Leon (edited) and Shelby (edited), art collectors also known for having illegally acquired artifacts. They have been very strong opponents of people calling for the end of collecting, and are in the bad books of many archaeologists. Unfortunately, they also have a lot of money and tend to sponsor excavations of sites as well! A lot of times, however, museums do have to turn down donations because they know they will get in trouble for accepting them. There has been quite a lot of public denouncing of the Getty and the Met for continuing to accept materials from these collectors when they are known to operate outside of the usual legal and ethical conventions.


4.) A system such as what England now has, where detectorists can register their artifacts with a local museum, is a new and innovative approach to artifact collecting. Unless the item has a more significant cultural value and the state purchases it, they otherwise become the property of the finder. What can a museum really do with thousands of fibulas (Roman broaches) and fibula fragments for example.


There are no legal obligations to either note down where artifacts are found or to keep them out of the art market (though selling them abroad would be illegal). But in places where archaeological societies are active, it is not unheard of that people at least let them know what was found and where so that such information can be added to the database of information about a region. I think this is the idea behind the more generous attitude in Britain—encouraging documentation rather than punishing people—and thus adding data to an overall database.

See the British Portable Antiquities Scheme website:

Also see a recent article on BBC about this:

There was a time when museums/sites/countries sold off less significant pieces or artifacts that they had thousands of—this was true in China during the cultural Revolution, in Cambodia until the 1970s I believe, and I’m sure in other places as well. Now that can no longer be official policy, particularly if the country has signed the UNESCO Convention.


5.) However when you consider that another option might also be for instance, an Iron sword that is ripped from its origin and then is not only improperly stored, and degrades, but is never researched, never published. An argument could be made that this situation is the worst of all of them. The lesser of two evils if you will.


The general feeling among the archaeological community on this issue is that it is important to give up the short-term gains of studying/preserving/publishing these materials for the longer-term gains of studying things that have been scientifically and systematically excavated. This does mean turning away from unprovenanced objects which may be quite important, but there is a strong feeling (among the majority of archaeologists, but not all) that this is more important. Recently, the Archaeological Institute of America has argued against publishing unprovenanced material since it gives legitimacy, monetary value and a pedigree to illicit artifacts. Recently however, the moratorium on publishing unprovenanced materials was relaxed by the American Schools for Oriental Research for cuneiform tablets from Iraq because the level of destruction is such that publishing was the only way to preserve them.


Codes of Ethics for Professionals Associated with Artifacts

Most professional organizations and museums have come out with codes of ethics which forbid them to engage in any activity with unprovenanced artifacts. I thought it might be useful to look at the codes of ethics for some of the more well known organizations. Generally, neither archaeologists, art historians nor conservators are allowed to authenticate, display, publish or in any way deal with materials which were not legally excavated and exported/imported.

For a list of the codes of ethics for many museums, archaeological organizations and conservation organizations, see:

The Archaeological Institute of America, click on Code of Ethics

The Society for American Archaeology

The American Institute for Conservation

The Institute of Conservation

Canadian Association for Conservation

Most museums cannot (or should not) accept unprovenanced material. Museums that display unprovenanced materials can be subject to lawsuits, or at the very least, can have their reputations damaged for having accepted possibly illegally acquired artifacts. If accepted, it is unlikely that a museum can exhibit your material, and it may be relegated to a study collection at best. Your material will probably not be publishable either for the same reasons. Here are some guidelines for how museums collect objects:

MOA, If donating to MOA, your objects have to be certified and you have to prove that you are the legal owner of the material

Laboratory of Archaeology, UBC:

Kelsey Museum, University of Michigan:

The J.Paul Getty Museum’s new statement on the acquisition of artifacts


1.) What does provenanced mean as opposed to un-provenanced? Clearly having legal title to something is somewhat subjective. Is a purchase agreement enough? What kind of import documents do you require?


The Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) is a good place to look for some guidance. See

And look specifically at the 2004 report “Acquisition of Archaeological Materials and Ancient Art” under the section “Inquiry and Research” to see the kinds of research that are required of museums before purchasing or acquiring ancient art (page 3). Also see the 2001 report “Art Museums and the International Exchange of Cultural Artifacts” (page 2). There is also a small note in “Art Museums, Private Collectors and the Pulblic Benefit” from 2007 (see page 2) that encourages museums acquiring works from private collectors to look into whether those materials were legally purchased, and if not, whether that is acceptable by the museum.

One scholar David Gill finds fault with the usual ways in which museums or collectors define provenance for antiquities—and his points are well taken:

The AAMD documents point out that sometimes you simply cannot figure out any provenance information for an artifact, and in that case, it is a judgment call on the part of the museum director. He or she has to decide to acquire or turn down an object based on the sometimes conflicting issues of legality, rarity, how the acquisition fits in with the mission of the museum, etc.

The 2001 AAMD document suggests that there is something to be learned even from things removed from their context, but this is quite hotly challenged by most archaeologists. (See 2004 document; page 2 and page 5) But museum directors are supposed to consider whether acquiring unprovenanced material may be actively encouraging looting in the source country. Of course, if the material is found to have been acquired illegally at a later time, the museums are supposed to work with the source country to somehow rectify this problem, but that is not a legal requirement. In recent years museums like the Metropolitan Museum have “donated” objects back to countries they were known and proven to be stolen from. In other cases, there have been negotiations for “long term loans” back to the source country—this was something that was suggested for the Parthenon marbles at the British Museum.

Here’s a recent list of objects being returned or being investigated in various collections:


2.) If one goes on a reputable auction site you fail to see a single artifact there that has proper “import/export” documents, or ANY mention of where the item originated. Many read: “from private collection 1995, 1999 lot 15 New York Auction sale” etc. This is not a provenance as I understand it. Where did the “private” collector get it from? From my perspective what it really looks like, is that someone has “washed” the artifact to clean it of any illicit background. Much the same way as money is laundered in the criminal world. Sell the item at a few reputable auction sites and before you know it you have a “legitimate” provenance. This may be a factual stretch on my part, but I have yet to see any provenance that states: “York Archeological dig 1996, site 1, private collections 2000 etc.”. This to me would be proper provenance.


This is tricky and there are many listings even on more “reputable” sites that have no provenance information. At a Society for American Archaeology meeting a few years ago there was a presentation about how many unprovenanced objects actually are sold by major auction sites, and it comes down to which countries things are coming from and how stringent their export regulations and enforcement are. [Remember also that the burden of proving that the artifact was stolen and providing evidence for this is on the source country—It isn’t always easy to come up with this kind of documentation.] The speaker mentioned that right now objects from Central and South America are still easy to traffic and that some of these Auctions listed important pottery with such “provenance” information as just “from Baja”. This is blatantly wrong and illegal, but there isn’t much enforcement for this kind of thing, and there aren’t as many watchdogs checking up on them as might be for other countries such as Greece, Italy or Turkey. Those countries have sued both auction houses/dealers and collectors for acquiring illegal materials and have some financial and legal resources and contacts to do so. I don’t think that many countries are in a position to do that.


3.) It is frustrating to see such private collections such as the famous Guttmann collection of Roman Military artifacts (if you are familiar with it) get so much attention. What makes his purchases so legitimate, beyond the fact that he probably paid 10’s of thousands of dollars for the pieces.


This is also tricky. A lot of rich collectors do get away with this kind of thing, but some very high profile collectors have been taken to task by countries demanding their cultural material back, as mentioned before.

Other Opportunities for Involvement with Antiquities

One of the most exciting ways of being involved in the study and protection of cultural heritage. There are any number of active excavations working specifically on Roman military questions, and I am sure that you are aware of many of the major ones. A donation to a university project might be a wonderful way to actively engage with real-time archaeology—perhaps you could even go out to the site and at least see or possibly take part in the excavation? Here are just a few of the websites.

The AIA website also has a link to fieldwork projects that take volunteers.

Perhaps you could also go to professional conferences looking at Roman Military material? This would be a great way to connect with people actively working in the field who might have ideas for how you could get involved.

I also think that there would be many museums both in Canada and around the world which would be interested in the donation of funds to complete important and needed conservation work on Roman military material. This is particularly true for archaeological artifacts which often do not get the treatment and consideration that more iconic objects like statues or architectural fragments often get. I am sure that archaeologists working in different countries could give you contact information for local museums and the kinds of projects that desperately need funding.