THE CURRENT SITUATION:
The ownership of the past has become a very contentious issue in the last few decades. A small but extremely vocal group contends that the only way to understand and preserve the past is through field archaeology, which is the careful excavation of ancient sites to record the context of finds. Careful archaeological excavation only occurs in the most fortuitous of circumstances. In reality, millions of objects have come to light under less than ideal circumstances. This may be through intentional curiosity or unintentional discovery. These objects often made their way into the art trade. In most cases these objects can be thoroughly understood through art historical analysis. They are not rendered worthless, as some contend, since they have lost their archaeological context.
Many countries maintained a robust legal trade in antiquities up until fairly recently. Egypt, for instance, allowed an active legal trade in antiquities up until 1983. Countless objects were sold to tourists, dealers, and agents buying for museums and collectors. Export of these objects was not subject to strict controls and shipments were often registered by the crate load rather than by inventories of specific objects. This vast amount of ancient artwork continues to recirculate in the worldwide antiquities trade. Detractors of this trade today claim that all of these objects were stolen and must be repatriated to the modern state from which they were first discovered. This is a naïve notion that criminalizes prior legal transactions and casts a shadow over a great many legitimately acquired pieces that were never accompanied by documentation that is now required. Further criminalizing the art trade is not a solution. Only vigilant protection of archaeological sites will preserve archaeological context for future research.
The UNESCO agreement was clear in its goal of assisting archaeologically rich nations to gain control of their cultural heritage. It established a framework by which nations could create designated lists of objects of cultural importance that would require government approval prior to export. Member nations would then work with source nations to monitor cultural property that may have been removed counter to the processes required by the source nation. The UNESCO agreement presupposed that such nations would provide effective security of storerooms and archaeological sites, educate locals about their cultural heritage, establish and share databases, and prioritize items that were unique and of national cultural importance. Unfortunately, this system has been abused to the point where source nations have not provided adequate security of sites and storerooms, have failed to produce inventories of objects, and have instead produced designated lists of “culturally important objects” that include virtually all objects regardless of value, rarity, or significance, that are over 100 years old that might be found within their borders. The result is that member nations like the United States are burdened with regarding commonplace ancient objects that are of no cultural importance as foreign national treasures that must be repatriated to nations that did very little to stop their removal and export. Contrary to the notions of a modern globalized world, many nations continue to treat antiquities in an intensely nationalistic manner, rather than allow a free regulated trade in such objects.
We believe that responsible collecting should not only be tolerated, but encouraged, as art collectors act as enthusiastic custodians of a great many objects that would otherwise be relegated to overcrowded storerooms or lost. There is a true pleasure in acquiring, preserving, and cherishing the works of art that have managed to elude the destructive ravages of time and
come down to us. These objects represent the physical manifestation of the manifold achievements of our ancestors. They are the antecedents of all modern culture not just the populations of certain modern nations. Ancient objects will undoubtedly survive longer than those of us who collect them, but these collectors become links in a chain, preserving the past for future generations by passing them on to their heirs, placing them with future collectors, or donating them to museums.
The ACPCP represents diverse groups and individuals who all have a stake in the preservation of personal property rights as they relate to collecting ancient artwork. Among them are museum professionals, academics, appraisers, art dealers, collectors, legal professionals, law enforcement professionals and members of the general public. There has in recent years been an alarming amount of misleading information promoted by groups that are calling for the prohibition of ownership and trade of ancient cultural objects. The much maligned antiquities trade is among the smallest sectors of the overall art market. Total worldwide sales of antiquities in the legitimate marketplace on an annual basis, including auctions, galleries, art fairs and online sales has never exceeded 300 million dollars in total. Yet several articles have been published in recent years speculating that an undocumented illicit trade in recently looted material from the war torn nations of the Middle East exceeds several billion dollars in sales. There is absolutely no evidence to support this fantastic assessment. Nevertheless, 'experts' on the antiquities trade continue to feed the press unsupported allegations that billions of dollars from an unseen nefarious antiquities trade fund our nations enemies abroad. Furthermore, these groups give misleading testimony to US government policy makers based on their own unfounded suppositions about the illicit trade.
Despite vigorous enforcement of long standing antiquities trade regulations and strict customs controls, virtually no antiquities of any value originating from the Syrian conflict have been found entering the US or European nations in recent years. The powerful anti-art trade lobby is relentless in pushing for more legal action, and more US tax payer funds to stamp out an illicit trade that does not seem to exist. This ongoing pressure has done nothing to stop the destruction of cultural heritage in the Middle East. It has, however, put those who collect, preserve, and trade in legally acquired ancient art under a great deal of unnecessary scrutiny. Dealers, collectors and museums have been forced to defend themselves repeatedly against allegations of untoward acquisitions that have no legal basis. Museum acquisitions of antiquities through purchase in the marketplace or charitable donations have all but ceased in recent years. Some academics have publicly stated that they wish to see a complete cessation of the perfectly legal antiquities trade. This runs counter to the ideals of a vibrant free market economy and the open exchange of cultural works of art that we cherish in this nation. Rather, the banishment of the art trade and blanket state ownership of the past are hallmarks of authoritarian regimes that stifle private enterprise, arts, and culture.
Moving forward, the ACPCP, seeks a voice in the debate over the preservation of cultural property. We would be happy to provide expert opinions from academics, appraisers, lawyers, and law enforcement officials based on facts on the ancient art trade to the press and to lawmakers, before more outlandish allegations lead to further unnecessary legislation threatening the cultural institution which is the art trade.
One of our esteemed spokesmen, James McAndrew, retired U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) agent, founder and former head of their International Art and Antiquity Theft Investigations Program, has been very active in combating the rising tide of misinformation regarding the scale of the illicit trade and the lack of evidence tying the legitimate antiquities trade to the deliberate destruction of cultural property in the Middle East today.