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.