Provenance and the Antiquities Trade

Those who are involved in the trade of antiquities need to learn the history of ownership of an object, known as its provenance, to ensure that they are not buying a stolen or looted object. We now live in a world in which provenance is almost more important than the artifact itself.

In 1970 it became illegal to export antiquities from many countries. Therefore, if an antiquity arrived in the US before 1970, and that can be proven, then it’s in the US legally and there is little need to worry about a foreign government claiming it.

But what should happen to the hundreds of thousands of antiquities whose provenance is completely unknown or only partly known? Many of these items do not have a good provenance for several reasons.

First, until the 1990s or even later, most collectors cared much more about the quality and beauty of an item than the line of succession of its previous owners. Second, dealers, for business reasons, did not want collectors to know the name of the previous owner to prevent collectors from going directly to them. Third, owners are now so afraid of running afoul of government restrictions that they no longer want their names associated with their artifacts, so the new owners are only told incomplete information, such as “from a Los Angeles collector, acquired in the fifties.” Fourth, while owners do usually keep a bill of sale for their most expensive pieces, many owners either do not keep or their heirs discard documentation of moderately priced items.

Some in the archaeological world want all artifacts sent back to their countries of origin, despite the fact that several countries can claim the same artifact, that some countries don’t have the money or space to house them, and that volatile countries have had museums and storehouses looted in times of unrest.

The only way to maintain the world’s artifacts is to have them as broadly dispersed as possible, between the native countries, museums and private collectors, who frequently donate altruistically or selfishly to museums. Otherwise, we may find ourselves in a situation in which major and minor artifacts are donated only to the museums of countries whose requirements are not as strict as our U.S. ones.

Some archaeologists would like to abolish the sale of antiquities in the hopes of preserving archaeological contexts - the place where an item was found and the other objects it was found with. However, a ban would just drive the trade underground.

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