Illicit antiquities are once again in the headlines. US retailer Hobby Lobby was recently fined US$3m (£2.3m) for illegally acquiring antiquities that were most likely looted from Iraq. Collectors and museums are therefore being reminded to undertake due diligence in checking collections’ histories before purchasing cultural property.
The implication here is, of course, that when the item on the auction block has been legally excavated and diligently recorded by archaeologists, there isn’t a problem. This is an enormous mistake. Such sales may be legal, but they are still ethically problematic.
At its most direct, the public auction of archaeologically procured finds puts those objects at risk of disappearing into the private domain, where their integrity is no longer assured. There are no international legal protections, no “obligations of ownership”, for cultural property in private possession.
More broadly, the legal status of these sales confers an air of legitimacy to the antiquities trade. Yet as scholars have demonstrated, however one looks at it this is a “grey trade”. Illicit antiquities – that is things without provenance, accompanied by fake documents or with opaque ownership histories – are likely to be offered at the same sales. Examples of illicit antiquities pulled from a Christie’s auction in 2015 are a case in point.
The origin of items offered by auction houses is supposed to be subjected to close scrutiny. This seems reassuring, but there’s a worry that the records of discovery made by archaeologists now not only certifies auction lots, but also inflates their monetary worth. And this in a wider art market where prices have never been higher and is at risk of severe overheating.
Whether they covet Old Masters or ancient pots, many bidders seek to acquire cultural capital – not out of some sort of honed connoisseurship or a sense of societal patronage – but as immediate monetary investments and as symbols of…