Second, we have Steven Vincent’s take on the international antiquities trade. Vincent, arguing from a free market perspective and in defense of the property rights of Western collectors, makes the case that the restrictions on the antiquities trade created in the past decades have both failed to stem the flow of illegal antiques, and intruded upon the rights of American citizens. Isn’t it possible, he seems to ask, that a little bit of looting and free-marketeering with objects of cultural significance is good for the world as a whole, sighting the mess in Afghanistan as a case where looting may be preventing the loss of important antiquities by removing them from the hands of a government bent on their destruction.
I simply don’t agree with Vincent’s take on the antiquities trade. In laying out the case in favor of unregulated or lightly regulated antiquities trade, he neglects something more significant than any vague notion of ‘cultural patrimony’: the property rights of the source nations. Antiquities are the property of a nation as a whole, just like its environment and public lands. If drilling teams were slinking into Egypt in the night and removing crude oil from national parks instead of mummies and grave goods, there would be no question that the trade was illegal and in need of regulation, whatever the intentions of the buyers.
The fact that some of the arguments that those in favor of closer scrutiny of the antiquities trade are making are a bit shrill doesn’t change the facts of the situation, nor negate the more reasonable arguments against trading in looted or unprovenanced antiquities. While attempting to assert rights on goods that left the country hundreds of years ago is untenable, few nations are actually attempting to do so; Italy, which has been particularly aggressive in asserting its rights to its looted goods, ignores goods privately owned prior to 1902. While in a few heavily publicized cases (Vincent sites the flooding of archaeological sights by the Three Gorges Dam project, and the destruction of antiquities perceived to be ‘un-Islamic’ by the Taliban) governments have attempted to destroy their own antiquities, in general governments recognize their value- both in tourist dollars and in historical and scientific significance. Advances in technology- from virtual art galleries, to scan-and-fabricate systems- mean that even artifacts that remain in their home country are likely to be available in one form or another- replicas, high quality digital photos, three-dimensional scans and projections- to interested viewers around the world.
Aggressively demanding that provenance be enforced for items currently circulating in the world market is the only way to prevent stolen goods from lining the pockets of looters. Looking the other way with a vase or statue is no better than accepting a TV that ‘fell of the truck’. It fuels the international market for looted goods, which guarantees that more significant cultural items will be damaged or destroyed, and the property rights of developing nations unable to defend their antiquities and their borders (Cambodia, for instance) will continue to be flaunted. The mania for antiquities was largely a habit cultivated by colonialism. Justifying looting foreign soils in the name of aesthetics and preservation is little more than a latter-day relic of the colonial system.