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.
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.
This act also sets up a system by which countries which have signed the UNESCO convention can petition to have their material returned.
The European Union has also developed treaties to protect archaeological heritage; these treaties have been ratified by most EU nations
Here are a few websites demonstrating this active problem:
Laws protecting cultural property in the former
The UNIDROIT Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects
The Art Loss Register
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.
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.
Here’s just one example from
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
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.
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
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
4.) A system such as what
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
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
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.
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:
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 http://www.aamd.org/papers/
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.
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
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