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Antiquities & Archaeology

Only a legal antiquities market can curb the illegal market which destroys world history

Change needed in the face of a growing market

Contrast two recent cases, both reported in this issue: an English court duly arrives at a fair market valuation of the Roman silver hoard found by a retired gardener who, confident of fair treatment, had declared the find to the authorities (p.25). The British Museum will acquire what it wants from him at this price and he will then be free to sell or keep the rest as he pleases. The objects and their context are properly recorded; public collections get their pick of the find and the citizen goes away happy.

A court in New York rules that neither of the countries laying claim to the Sevso Roman hoard has supplied enough proof to show that it comes from their territory (p.4). The sad fact is that the origins of those wonderful objects are probably lost for ever; they may never speak to us of the people who owned them so many centuries ago. That page of the world's history has been torn up and we are all the losers, not just the nation (whichever that might be) within whose frontiers the treasure was secretly discovered.

All the countries from which the Sevso treasure is likely to stem have draconian legislation limiting or prohibiting entirely the export of antiquities and yet it is clearly ineffective: the antiquities trade is growing.

The auction houses hold sales where almost none of the lots has a provenance (the Hirschmann sale of Greek vases this month, pp.30-31, is a case in point). In the US, the collecting of antiquities is increasingly fashionable. The Metropolitan Museum is doubling the size of its Greek and Roman galleries and to do this has to encourage its support group, the collectors. The trade out of the Pakistani, Afghani and Iranian areas is also closely linked with the drugs trade and we all know how intractable that problem is.

As Maxwell Anderson, director of the Carlos Museum in Atlanta (which has pioneered a policy of taking them on long loan from source nations), says (p.4), any policy which does not take account of the interests of museums, collectors and dealers is doomed to fail.

To prevent future Sevso cases, the source countries will have to enlist the help of all their citizens, and reward them for declaring finds (not torture them, as happened in Iran a few years ago when a shepherd boy went to the police with the gold he had found; hearing his screams of agony, his friend ran away and melted down the rest of what he had. Pieces of that treasure are now in private collections and the Metropolitan Museum).

To eliminate smuggling, and corruption in official circles, they will have to allow a certain proportion of what is found to go into the market, perhaps through an open agency such as the sale rooms, which in exchange for this privilege would undertake to sell nothing without a documented provenance.

This has all been perfectly obvious to thinking people in the source nations for a long time. The obstacle to acting on it is largely emotional and therefore particularly difficult to overcome. Often - for example, in Italy and Greece - the subject is taboo in political circles because the concept of the total retention of the archaeological patrimony is so intimately bound up with nationalist feelings and memories of past exploitation by richer countries.

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 33 December 1993