In the editorial, Anna Somers Cocks argues 1) repatriated artifacts have a murky and uncomfortable place once they are ‘home,’ given they do not have explicit archaeological provenance and 2) that these artifacts could benefit their country’s (in this case Italy’s) art and museum economy by being sold off. Cocks’ suggestion solves a two-fold problem in archaeology-rich countries: little adequate space for safe, proper housing and displaying of returned artifacts, and little budget for interpreting them through effective museum exhibits and qualified personnel. Cuts to arts budgets in countries like Italy and Greece have had (predictably) pervasive detrimental results in the safety of objects in museum collections, not to mention the inaccessibility of such collections to the public when slim budgets force museums to restrict their hours. (Perhaps a good project for a graduate student studying art law or museum studies would be to measure correlation between, say, the implementation of Greece’s austerity budget and instances of theft or vandalism at museums and archaeological sites.)
Cocks argues proceeds from sale of ‘orphan antiquities’ (my term, not hers) could help provide for the construction of new museums and the shoring-up of existing ones. Most archaeologists or art historians working on the classical Mediterranean have seen the shocking state of many museums’ storerooms: objects stacked floor to ceiling in conditions not always healthy for conservation; beautiful and important objects off view because there is not enough personnel to move, conserve, and properly display them; collections inaccessible to scholars, much less tourists. (And in all fairness, there are museums in similar condition in the United States; I was told by the Registrar at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston that only 2-3% of their collection is on display at any point in time.) So an injection of cash–from the proceeds of auctions of orphan antiquities–to museums in Italy an elsewhere could encourage the improvement of facilities, the accessibility of the objects to the public, and could be a job-creating mechanism (curators, conservators, on down to ticket-takers and janitors).
Cocks’ suggestion of selling off orphan antiquities is not really a new one. When I was in graduate school at the turn of the millennium, I took a course in archaeology and law. Our professor argued–in scholarly circles as well as before Congress–that one way to limit the illicit trade in antiquities was to create a massive licit trade in them. Flood the market with orphan antiquities (or even ones from legitimate excavations which for whatever reason were difficult to house or display) and the price of all antiquities goes down. With far less profit to be had from the sale of looted objects, the looting of archaeological sites would dwindle. The cachet of owning artifacts, moreover, would decline as such pieces would not be considered so much of a luxury if more people could own them. I’m not an economist by far, but the argument seems fairly sound. Just look at the frustration of Mexican drug cartels over the legalization of marijuana in Colorado, Washington, and elsewhere.
So the sale of repatriated antiquities (or even of ‘duplicates’ like ancient coins or rather run-of-the-mill pottery) benefits museums in Italy and other archaeology-rich countries and it also may drastically curtail archaeological looting. Such sales could also bring antiquity to a broader audience. If prices are driven down by the flooding of the market, it won’t be only very wealthy museums or very wealthy individuals who can own such pieces. Even smaller, regional museums could have a visually impressive piece or a teaching collection. Or both!
Having worked as both a field archaeologist and a museum professional (as well as an academic specializing in classical art and archaeology), I do not usually take a rigid position on repatriation. Obviously I believe bringing an end to looting is an essential goal, toward which I wish more archaeologists would work. Returning pieces to countries of origin delivers some financial sting to the collectors and dealers who would trade in stolen objects. Yet repatriation is a means of dealing with the after-effects of such looting and the illicit market, and it is not a terribly creative idea. I do believe repatriation bolsters national pride and a sense of cultural identity, but only among a minority of (in this case) Italians, and is a temporary effect. In the case of the Lydian Hoard/Karun Treasure, repatriation might have been one of the worst things to befall this collection of artifacts, as they are displayed in a rather ratty provincial museum off the tourist track, almost completely uninterpreted by personnel or signage, and were the subject of a second theft.
If there is a ‘cure’ for looting, it is the elevation of cultural value over economic value. A looted object is a lovely page of prose; an object with archaeological context is an entire novel. When historical objects are displayed in collections which present historical and cultural context as well as the aesthetic or material value, the public can learn the importance of preserving archaeological sites and protecting them from looting. Certainly such lessons might be temporarily lost on a public suffering from political and economic crisis (hey, Egypt).
So, in my view, to summarize, selling orphan antiquities on a licit market:
- Discourages the illicit trade in antiquities by depressing prices
- Discourages archaeological looting as there is less profit to be had along the entire supply chain
- Shores up museums in source countries, inspiring the public to place more value on archaeological context and to in turn discourage looting (OK, maybe this puts too much faith in the power of accessible and engaging collections to really change hearts and minds.)
- Disseminates antiquities into more hands–not just the rich, but smaller collections which can further this message of protecting archaeological context in order to protect history