Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Should It Be Illegal to Purchase Ancient Artefacts?

by Laura Garratt


This essay was awarded first prize in the Archaeology Category of the St John's Oxford Classics and Ancient History Essay Competition.


In the summer of 2010, an early morning visit to the ancient ruins of Palmyra would have yielded views of the stunning monumental ruins of a great city with a myriad of tall and complete columns, illuminated with a rosy hue from the rising sun.  Visitors would rave about the sunset and sunrise on TripAdvisor, claiming the site to be the “Star of the Middle East”. 

Five years later, the sunrise is still the same, but it illuminates a scene of destruction and fallen stones.  The historic site fell under the control of ISIS in 2015: the Roman Theatre, which previously saw crowds of inquisitive tourists, has witnessed the ruthless execution of 25 captives; the temple of Baalshamin was razed with a large quantity of explosives; and artefacts both from the museum and the site itself were looted and sold on to buyers in the West, thereby filling the coffers of terrorists.
Despite this horrific example, I would argue that it should not be illegal to purchase ancient artefacts as I believe that the trade in legitimately obtained artefacts is something which ultimately benefits a great many people.  There are, of course, instances in which the sale of artefacts is already and should remain wholly illegal. This includes the trade in “blood antiquities” (antiquities which have been looted from war-torn countries and go towards fuelling conflict in those areas) and the sale of any other illicitly obtained artefact on the unregulated black market.

The impact on “blood antiquities” and other looted treasures

Several of the reasons why the illegal trade in artefacts causes so much damage are also compelling arguments to justify a total ban on the sale of all artefacts.

Firstly, the sale of looted treasures is an invaluable source of funding for ISIS and other terrorist organisations.  Being located in the cradle of civilisation, ISIS has some of the richest pickings in the world; the looting of al-Nabuk alone allegedly made ISIS $36 million.  Some of these artefacts will be kept hidden until the war dies down, but others have already been sold, often through Turkish merchants to European dealers.  Many of these end up in London, which has a huge market for antiquities.  Anyone purchasing these items would be directly funding terrorism, whether they are aware of it or not.

Secondly, the looting and theft of items actively damage archaeology itself and, therefore, our very understanding of history.  Once an item is removed from its original location it becomes difficult to understand its full and complete history.

In addition, countless precious objects are damaged while being removed, transported and stored by the people whose sole objective is to make money rather than to preserve and study them.
It could be argued, therefore, that at a total ban on the sale of ancient artefacts would slow down the enormous trade in them.  By putting an end to the easy circulation of precious antiquities, the looting and destruction of sites around the world would be discouraged and a lucrative source of funding would be made much more difficult for terrorists to access.

However, I would argue that a total ban on all artefacts would not have a significant impact on the sale of illegally-sourced antiquities.


The purchase of looted items is already banned in the UK, one of the world’s largest antiquities markets.  The “Dealing in Cultural Objects (Offences) Act 2003”, the “Theft Act 1968” and the “Proceeds of Crime Act 2002” all mean that it is illegal to purchase these looted items, and if you do so knowingly, you will be faced with charges.  Purchasing any item off the black market is illegal.  Unesco conventions on trading antiquities have been in place for over forty years and the trade in illicit artefacts from Iraq and Syria was banned by the UN Security council in 1990 and 2011 respectively.  Since these laws are already in place, there is only so much a new ban on all artefacts can achieve.

In fact, it is just as likely that outlawing the sale of all antiquities would increase the number that end up on the black market, since many people would resort to purchasing things illegally.  The huge demand for antiquities is unlikely to die out overnight and ruthless wealthy private collectors would benefit from the lack of competition for pieces from public institutions and law-abiding buyers.
In addition, the market for artefacts previously obtained legally would then be combined with the artefacts obtained illegally, mixing those with clean, moral histories with those obtained from looting, theft and destruction.   It would become much harder to distinguish the two.  In this way it is highly possible that illicit sales would in fact rise, not fall.

The consequences for the sellers

It is necessary to consider not only those purchasing the artefacts, but also those who sell them.  Selling antiquities provides a livelihood for many dealers; it’s a huge global industry.  Not only are there hundreds of dealers operating in the UK alone, but thousands who operate online.  A quick search on Google will reveal a multitude of internet shops claiming to sell authentic, legally acquired goods.  Sites like “www.ancientresource.com”, “www.artemisgallery.com” and more well-known ones such as “eBay” and “Etsy” have made it extremely easy for people to buy ancient artefacts.  The trade is booming, which means that more and more people make a living selling these objects.  Making the purchase of ancient artefacts illegal would put many of these people out of work.
In addition, many of the artefacts we see in museums today were discovered by accident, often found by farmers and peasants.  If it were illegal for them to be sold, there would be little reason for those who discover the artefacts to give them up.  Surely it is a good thing for money to be going to those who are often most in need of it?  The Venus de Milo was discovered by a peasant named Yorgos Kentrotas, and its value was recognised by a French naval officer, who bought it from the peasant.  The discovery and sale benefited everyone involved: the peasant was paid a decent sum of money and the Venus de Milo ended up in the Louvre, inspiring and admired by millions.

Arguably, those who discover artefacts will often underestimate the worth of the items and not get paid a fair price.  An example of this would be the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were found initially by a group of shepherds searching for a lost goat in caves.  Later, tiny scraps of the scrolls would be worth millions of dollars, but the shepherds sold all of them to a local antiquities dealer for only $50.  In instances like this, not everyone in the situation is as happy as in the case of the Venus de Milo.  However, it is arguable that $50 is better than nothing, which is what the shepherds might have made had they not legally been able to sell the items.  Had there been no incentive for them to sell their finds, the scrolls might have been used as kindling and the world would be a poorer place!

The potential effect on museums

If the sale of artefacts were made illegal, it might make it more difficult for items to end up in museums in the first place.  Not all pieces in museums have been donated but were bought from private collections.  The controversial Elgin Marbles were bought by the British Parliament from Lord Elgin for a reported £35,000 and displayed in the British Museum.  They originally cost Lord Elgin an estimated £75,000. Had these not been bought, they may have ended up in Greece’s Acropolis Museum (where many people believe they belong).  In 2015-16, there were 1.4 million visitors to the Acropolis Museum (of which I was luckily one).  During the same time, however, the British Museum welcomed over 6.9 million visitors.  It would seem that in the British Museum, the Elgin Marbles can be viewed by many more people.

Furthermore, in 2015, the world was shocked by images of an ISIL fighter using a power tool to destroy the face of a giant Assyrian winged bull in the Mosul Museum.  Perhaps, therefore, it is fortunate that in 1850 the British Museum purchased a pair of Assyrian winged bulls from Sir Henry Creswicke Rawlinson, since people can still study these excellent examples and marvel at their beauty.

Banning the sale of ancient artefacts could have negative impacts on our museums too.  Recently in the UK many museums have begun to struggle with funding.  According to a 2015 survey by the Museums Association, 18% of respondents said that “part of their museum or its branches had closed to the public in the past year or would do so in the coming year” and 20% said that they had already or would soon introduce charging.  Many of these museums have hundreds of artefacts in storage which may never be put on display.  The BBC claim, for example, that the British Museum shows only 1% of their 8 million artefacts, and having volunteered at a local museum myself, I have seen the huge storage rooms first-hand.  Therefore it might be a prudent option for museums to sell some of their artefacts, enabling them not only to survive but to expand and thrive.

Having said this, many would argue, firstly, that not all museum collections are bought.  Some items are indeed donated, and in the UK, under the “Cultural Gifts Scheme” UK taxpayers are able to receive a tax reduction when they “donate important works of art and other heritage objects to be held for the benefit of the public or the nation”.  This is arguably an alternative form of ‘payment’ for the artefacts, although they are not being explicitly ‘purchased’, but which serves to demonstrate the huge benefit to both buyer and seller of museums being able to acquire artefacts.

In addition, the sale of museum items is, admittedly, a controversial source of funding; there will many who would be nervous about the effect on future donations should objects in storage start to be sold in large quantities.

Despite both of these things, it would be irresponsible to completely disregard the potential value of the sale of artefacts.

In conclusion, many ancient artefacts are indeed bought and sold with the result that terrorists are funded and our very understanding of history is jeopardised, through the encouraging of looting and destruction.  However, banning the sale of all artefacts probably isn’t the answer to this problem; the sale of looted items is already illegal. Prohibiting the sale of all antiquities, on which so many people depend for their livelihoods, would only increase the size of the black market, thus making it harder to distinguish the illicitly obtained artefacts from those sourced ethically.  It would become harder for precious objects to end up where they can be protected, studied and enjoyed by as many people as possible.

₇https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Venus_de_Milo


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