Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Commodification of Antiquities as a Means of Protection?

An argument frequently banded about in the "antiquities debate" is that state-employed archaeologists and governments ought to facilitate the commodification of antiquities. It is asserted that this would 1) bring about an end to looting and 2) insure the preservation of antiquities. Perhaps it is worth revisiting these claims since they have been repeated with renewed fervor in the past couple of weeks.

Regarding the first point, some dealers and collectors allege that if archaeological warehouses and museum stores were opened up and sold off to the market then a legitimate market could be established, supplied only in this manner, while other antiquities trading could be made illegal. This contention is not well thought out. And let us be clear, the market in antiquities as it currently operates is already illegal and yet it flourishes; the great masses of Balkan antiquities presently in the North American market were not licitly excavated or exported.

Some collectors make a comparison to drug trafficking and America’s rather unsuccessful “War on Drugs.” They argue the point that government regulation may work better than a flat out ban. Fair enough, but the comparison is flawed in several ways since the supply mechanisms for the two markets are very different. Drugs are presently manufactured or grown illegally in the United States by people of varying criminal character, ranging from college students with a few plants to organized criminal gangs who run larger enterprises. Often times, harder drugs are imported from South American countries, where they are produced by organized criminal groups. Hypothetically speaking, if the United States government decided to legalize and regulate drugs, the government could license certain companies to produce substances and provide oversight to make them “safer” for the consumer. At the same time the illicit trade would be made much less profitable and the government could tax and control the regulated trade.

If we think about it though, this model is impossible to apply to the trade in antiquities. In many ways drugs are “renewable resources” in the sense that they are simply grown and harvested, like any crop, or can be manufactured. Antiquities, on the other hand, are a finite resource and only fakes and reproductions can be (and are) manufactured. For the sake of argument, however, let us suppose that governments around the world decided that they should commodify antiquities by opening museum stores and archaeological warehouses to sell “excess” antiquities. How long would it be until it was all consumed? Many American collectors and dealers seem to have a complete misunderstanding of archaeology as if its only goal is to go out and find “cool stuff” to put in museums (e.g. see the necesient editorial of one dealer in Coin World magazine, June 2007). On the contrary, modern field archaeology moves rather slowly in order to preserve and properly record contexts and the relationships between objects and assemblages. Once an object is pulled from the ground its context is irrecoverably destroyed and so it is essential to be methodical, scientific, and observant when excavating. The tools of archaeological science are trowels, brushes, and dental instruments. Compare these with the tools of those who supply the indiscriminate market in antiquities: bulldozers, backhoes, metal detectors, shovels, chainsaws (for hacking up relief, statues, and decorated sarcophagi), etc. In short, those who loot to supply Western dealers and collectors move a lot faster than archaeologists can and their methods are anything but scientific. Although some collectors and dealers like to say that archaeologists “hoard” antiquities for themselves and for study in their own little “club,” they fail to realize (or admit) that the vast majority of ancient objects do not reside in museums or archaeological stores but rather are already in dealer inventories and private collections. For example, the literal ton of ancient coins that one single "wholesaler" and supplier smuggled and sold to American dealers in 1999 roughly equates the same number of coins that German archaeology has recovered in two centuries and which have been systematically catalogued in finds inventories printed since 1960 (see discussion here with further references). Assuming all of these excavated coins are in still in archaeological warehouses throughout Germany, they would probably supply the American market in ancient coins for no more than a couple of months given the current rate of demand (for the scale of the American trade in ancient coins, see Elkins 2008 and the 2009 lecture posted at the Hellenic Society for Law and Archaeology website). Since the founding of the state of Israel, coins from excavations have been deposited with the Israel Antiquities Authority and their current archive holds approximately 110,000 coins in total. Compare this with the tens of thousands of coins sold each month by "wholesalers" who advertise their stock as coming from the "Holy Land." In light of the scale of the antiquities market for tourists in Israel (not accounting for the overseas market), Orly Blum notes:

"A counter proposal made by the pro-trade lobby is that the IAA should sell
artefacts that have already been studied and documented and which at present are
not exhibited to the public but are kept in storage. There is, however, a strong
objection to this suggestion. According to the IAA over 100,000 artefacts are
sold yearly. The Department of Antiquities has approximately 120,000 registered
items, other than coins (Ilan et al. 1989). If the present volume of sales were
maintained, the Department of Antiquities’ storerooms would be emptied within a

Asking archaeologists and governments to commodify antiquities and empty archaeological warehouses and museum stores to establish a licit market is not a practicable suggestion. Such repositories could be emptied, but an illicit underground market would continue to thrive as long as dealers and collectors did not concern themselves with the recent history of the objects they wish to acquire.

The second argument made in favor of government-sanctioned commodification of antiquities is that museum stores and archaeological warehouses sometimes do not have enough money to preserve antiquities they have and so they should be sold to collectors who can "care" for them. Recently on the Unidroit-L list some collectors have called attention to some 7,000 year old boats that have deteriorated in storage due to a lack of adequate funding to conserve them. One collector states that this is evidence that such things should be sold to collectors who can better care for them. Again, is this not rather simplistic? Consisting of very old organic materials, the remnants of a 7,000 year old boat are very difficult and expensive to conserve. Firstly, a collector would probably have little interest in things that are this large and not very aesthetically pleasing. Secondly, it assumes that a collector who bought such a thing would conserve it, but there would be no oversight to insure this. Who is to say that whoever might buy it would have the financial resources or the expertise to preserve it? Such an object certainly requires a specialist facility and constant maintenance. It is not the type of thing that could be put in the living room and expected not to rot. Archaeological conservators have advanced training in chemistry and professional conservation is not the type of thing that just anyone can properly undertake. Although your average archaeologist may have some basic knowledge of conservation, even they are not specialized conservators. This is precisely why museums and archaeological excavations employ trained conservators and why excavated objects are then moved to archaeological warehouses that also employ conservators to care for finds. If collectors are concerned about the deterioration of these important things and if the government is not supplying adequate funding, why not contact the custodians and donate some money? I do not recall demanding a tiger cub or getting a snow owl in return for my last donation to the WWF.

Collectors on the Unidroit-L list have also latched onto the news of the collapse of the archive building in Cologne, Germany, stating that had everything not been stored in this building the loss might not have been so great. One compared this to the burning of the Library of Alexandria and said that had it been divided up the loss would not have been so substantial. But is this not spinning the issue? The function of an archive or library is to be a repository of information. If, as dealer Dave Welsh and a hanger-on suggested, such great archives, libraries, and collections were intentionally dispersed, then any researcher would have to travel to multiple disparate locations to conduct research, defeating the very purpose of such repositories. This also increases the statistical possibility of disaster striking at any particularl location.

And if things were sold to collectors to "care for," then how can their future study be insured? X collector sells to Y dealer who then sells it Z collector. How will one know where it is to study it further? Who is to say that the collector in question, as a private citizen, would allow anyone to see it or study it or not demand some extraordinary conditions even to allow it to be examined (e.g. the researcher must promote some ideological agenda or require pecuniary compensation)? For example, there is an eccentric collector of fossils I am familiar with in West Texas who runs a private fossil museum and is a staunch creationist. He possesses some very rare and significant fossils, and for the sake of argument, let us say he would not let paleontologists who do not believe man walked side-by-side with dinosaurs consult them, what if only staunch creationists believing in the literal word of the Bible could “scientifically” study these?

These arguments about the need for the commodification of antiquities are flawed on multiple levels and are directed at trying to shame archaeologists and governments for improper care of items. Where this is warranted, I will agree. All excavated finds merit thorough study and proper conservation, but let us recognize the agenda of those collectors maintaining those arguments and the dealers who formulated them. Certainly the conclusion that archaeologists and governments ought to endorse the commodification of antiquities based on such criticisms is agenda-driven and without merit. The conclusion itself is a non-sequitor. I would also like to point out that while improvements can be made in some circumstances in government and archaeological custodianship, there is no oversight governing the custodianship of collectors and dealers and that one can just as easily point to cases where objects owned by collectors and dealers are being destroyed, mutilated, or allowed to decay (e.g. Elkins 2008, pp. 5-6). And let us not forget that looters regularly smash pots because sherds can be smuggled easier than whole vases and that decorated relief panels and statue pieces are cut down or off of other monuments to make them transportable and more displayable.

We ought to ecognize these arguments for what they are: red herrings. They distract from the central issue which is one that concerns the material and intellectual consequences of looting and its relationship to an indiscriminate market and the responsibility of individual stakeholders (archaeologists, dealers, and collectors).

Note: At least one responsible collector seems to understand the fallacy of these often repeated deceptions. Privately, a colleague also pointed out the irony in the fact that some commentators simultaneously lament announcements to disperse of large study collections, but then maintain that large collections should be slimmed down to appease the commercial interest. At the same time, such commentators also laud Cuno's arguments, even though he is a strong supporter of the same "encyclopedic museum" which they would prefer to have divided among American curio cabinets in private homes and appartments throughout the country.



You are comparing a totally free market with a totally unfree market. Other schemes are possible. Imagine a regime where the state releases 5000 coins per year to licensed dealers. Initially every licensed dealer gets an even share of the legal coins but a process allows a dealer to get a bigger share the next year for ratting on looters.

Perhaps other incentives could encourage dealers to publish raw data and to team with ethical archaeologists creating new products beyond the traditional "coin + 2x2 flip".


Nathan- I found your post to be interesting, but allow me to offer some counterpoints. The pejorative term "commodification" of artifacts is a bit ironic given the fact that many artifacts were in fact created and treated as commodities by the ancient cultures that created them. At bottom, if context is the most important thing for archaeologists, once that context is recorded what is wrong with selective deaccession of duplicates found at archaeological sites? The ANS is in the process of selling die duplicates of ancient and modern coins in its collections. Let's face it. There is not enough funding available in countries like Italy or Greece or Turkey to ensure that even basic needs are met. Deaccession of duplicate items will help generate needed funds, encourage local interest in the past and protect artifacts from spoliation due to poor storage conditions and the like. You mention looters sometimes smashing pots for commercial purposes. I have it on good authority that archaeologists have purposely destroy artifacts like pots when they have no more room to store them. Wouldn't it be better if these artifacts were sold to collectors rather than being destroyed "just to make room?" The "looting problem" will only be solved through efforts that give more than archaeologists and the state a stake in preserving the past. You may quibble with programs like the Treasure Act and PAS, but those programs have even gained support from the likes of Lord Renfrew, because he realizes that engaging interested local people not only helps record artifacts but is a positive good in that it encourages cultural heritage preservation on a large scale.


Peter Tompa


Hello Ed,

I’m not sure what market comparison you are referring to. I think the only market comparison I made was between the supply of antiquities and drugs, which was a critique on the simplified arguments often made by some circles that the drug problem and the looting problem could be solved in the same way: legalize and regulate. In the case of the former, I was making the point that demand would currently outstrip any possible legal supply even if museum and archaeological warehouses were opened.

The overall point of the post is to show that these resentful arguments often made on lists such as Unidroit are completely impractical and oversimplify the issues.

You are right, however, that other methods could well be introduced and ought to be considered as far as their potential effectiveness and pragmatism.

I am not sure though if something like “releasing” 5,000 coins a year to a mixed group of dealers in exchange for “ratting” would be effective, though. First of all, we must understand how slowly archaeology moves in comparison to systematic looting. Most excavations move rather slowly to record the data meticulously and only operate for 4-6 weeks out of the year. Looters move very quickly and will work year round. I have done no formal study of it, but if we are talking about “supply” it may be that a figure like 5,000 coins or less may even be what is recovered in total from sites across Europe and the Middle East each year via scientific excavation and so this may really be asking for a lot. Practically, if say 5,000 coins were given away to dealers each year (500 each for 10 dealers) from storehouses, what exactly would be the incentive to “rat” on looters or shady suppliers? A supplier in the Balkans could potentially supply a dealer with a lot more than 500 coins annually.

I am not saying there is not any room for compromise, I am saying that the arguments as they are currently articulated by some of the Unidroiters hold little water and I am also making the point that what is in fact in archaeological stores and in museums is dwarfed by what is already in dealer inventories and private collections. The argument that they have to be “saved” by collectors is a complete red herring because in all honesty we must admit that collectors are not always the best stewards or conservators of ancient objects either and one can just as easily point “horrors” where dealers and collectors have allowed them to deteriorate or even mutilated them.

Personally, I think an “amnesty” on existing antiquities and the establishment of a “closed market” in those, as discussed by Cook, would be much more practical. Additional material could be supplied by deaccessioning or schemes like the PAS. But it would not be possible for scientific archaeology to keep up with the great demand there is now.

If you would like a copy of Cook's article I could send it along to you. I think I set it aside to send you last summer, but I don't think I ever got around to scanning it. Let me know.


All best,


Hello Peter,

Deacessioning, in my view, should be the perogative of the institution involved. If the ANS wishes to deaccession die duplicates then that is up to them and there is nothing wrong with - I never said there was.

What I am taking issue with here is the Welshian style insistance that it is up to archaeology to satisfy a commercial demand by depleting museums, study collections, and archaeological warehouses. That is an extreme and self-serving viewpoint. I was also primarily addressing the flaws in the assertion that depleting these archives would solve the looting problem, when in fact the vast majority of material is already in the market not in museum or archaeoligical storage. You are right that once an object is recorded it could perhaps be sold off, but I think you will find resistance to this because it negates future study. What if archaeometric work needs to be done in the future? What if someone wants to come back and study the drill work in a collection of reliefs? And so on.

Also, the notion that encyclopedic museum collections or archives should be sold off to meet commercial demand is problematic. The very purpose of these museums is to educate visitors and to serve as an archive where certain specialist collections can be consulted. Some private collectors pride themselves on having an important collection built around a particular class or subclass of object or a certain theme. Why then is it portrayed as evil for museums to have specialist study collections? One of the great strengths of the ANS collection, for example, is its world class collection of Hellenistic coins, but if we were to follow the arguments made by some of the Unidroiters quite literally, they would prefer these things to be divided among private collections. I hope we can agree this doesn't make much sense.

I did not criticize the PAS scheme (see my above comment for a reference to it, however). I may have addressed more of your points there.

I am glad you picked up on my point that both sides can criticize each other all they want about properly "caring" for antiquities, but this is not useful. That is a distraction. I think the real question in all of this is what we need to be doing to address the looting problem.



Dave Welsh is speaking from his heart, not as an expert in novel untried approaches to cultural heritage. I'm sure his opinion annoys you but cut him some slack there seems to be a lot of disagreement about numbers.

You say the Israel Antiquities Authority has 120,000 registered items (excluding coins). Maybe they also have a lot of unregistered items and coins that should be counted? The Israel Antiquities Authority considered selling two million potshards a few years ago. The Haaretz writer, Amiram Barkat, estimated they could go for $2 each, but that is just a guess.

Soon after that article someone set the warehouse on fire!


Hi Ed,

I understand that Mr. Welsh is speaking from emotion rather than from facts. In my view that is precisely the problem. Rather than engaging with facts and numbers, some prefer to sensationalize. I do not find useful, when someone is perceived as an authority of sorts in some circles.

Having conducted fieldwork in Israel and having had some dealings with the IAA, it is my understanding that objects are registered soon after they are deposited at the IAA (i.e. right after an excavation hands them over). The IAA is well-staffed and so I would doubt they would have a great back log, but that is hazarding a guess. By the way, the information came from Orly Blum, whom I quoted.

All the best,


Nathan, These are very good arguments against people being allowed to collect ancient objects, but I would argue that the state (in either a museum or university form) should not be allowed to be the only entity that can legally own antiquities. Why would you trust the state to care for these objects exclusively? History is a great argument against the state owning all of anything, and since you are an archaeologist with an anthropological interest you know this...

In my opinion there can be some compromise achieved where archaeologists receive protection for digs/sites, and antiquities aren't looted as easliy (it is probably impossible to completely stop), and where collectors have some rights regarding the ability to own and collect small antiquities that exist in the millions, like ancient coins.


Hello Bill,

If you reread my post you will see that I am not saying that people should not be able to collect, rather that it is absurd and outrageous to demand archaeological warehouses and museum stores be depleted to satisfy a commercial demand. The demand would soon outstrip what there is available in such places.


Further discussion can now be found


Agreed; it would be silly to "demand archaeological warehouses and museum stores be depleted". Who is making this demand?

I have demanded that state museums photograph ancient coins and allow redistribution, even commercial redistribution, of the pictures but not even the ACCG goes that far.

You are correct that having the state compete with looters by undercutting them would quickly deplete antiquities warehouses if no other controls were put in place.