Homes For “Orphaned” Antiquities

Homes For “Orphaned” Antiquities

Arts July 15, 2012 / By Erich Matthes
Homes For “Orphaned” Antiquities

Undocumented antiquities are rightly refused by museums, but they aren't "orphaned." They have a home in their native countries.

The recent New York Times article “The Curse of the Outcast Artifact” describes the supposed plight of private collectors of antiquities who have had their intended donations turned away by museums. If an artifact lacks documentation of its provenance (the chain of ownership) dating back to before 1970, museums are increasingly likely to refuse the donations. Why? Because artifacts excavated through legal archaeological digs are painstakingly documented. The absence of any documentable provenance is a strong indicator that an artifact has been acquired through looting. Many nations have rigid laws regarding (and often prohibiting) the export of cultural property, and museums that display undocumented work are almost begging for a lawsuit.

But museums aren’t just being prudent. The refusal to accept undocumented artifacts is part of a concerted effort to curb the market in illicitly acquired antiquities. Looters who steal artifacts from tombs, temples and other sites destroy the archeological record. Much of what archaeologists learn from artifacts comes from studying them in situ—while looted artifacts may maintain their aesthetic value, absent context their historical value is largely lost. Unfortunately, the incentive for these thefts is significant. According to the US Department of Justice, art crime (which includes antiquities) is the 3rd highest-grossing criminal trade (the 1st and 2nd are drugs and arms!) In recognition of this problem, UNESCO adopted a convention back in 1970 exhorting museums not to accept illegally exported artifacts. If the demand for illicitly acquired antiquities is decreased, there will be less incentive for looters to pillage archaeological sites.

Despite these efforts to curb the looting and destruction of these sites, the illicit trade is alive and well, as demonstrated by recent events at the Angkor temples in Cambodia. Though the linked accounts are recent, such theft has been occurring for decades. As described in a 2000 report on the illicit market in antiquities commissioned by the International Council of Museums: “In Cambodia decorative friezes and sculptures are being sawn off Khmer period temples. A single lorry stopped on the Cambodian-Thai border was found to contain 117 sandstone carvings from the 12th-century AD temple of Banteay Chmar. One Bangkok dealer was offering a loot-to-order service for parts of this temple. During the sustained looting raid, so much material was chainsawed from the walls that the temple is now on the brink of collapse.”

So you can see why it’s important that museums not accept undocumented artifacts, a policy being adopted by an increasing number of institutions. This brings us back to the US collectors who are unable to sell or donate their undocumented antiquities. While the damage to the archaeological record is already done, these artifacts are still significant. The NYTimes article quotes Arthur A Houghton III, president of the Cultural Policy Research Institute, as lamenting that these artifacts are “orphaned” when museums won’t take them. But the analogy is inapt. These artifacts still have a rightful home back in the nations from which they were likely stolen. If these collectors are in a philanthropic spirit and want to do a good deed, they should send the artifacts home. The effort might even end in a heart-warming story. But more importantly, it’s a small way of redressing a wrong that collectors themselves help to promote by being part of the demand for antiquities.

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