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Cultural Sensitivity for All, Baby Seal Fur for None.
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Cultural Sensitivity for All, Baby Seal Fur for None.

I really liked the following paragraph from Larry Rothfield on SAFE. 

All of us who care about our collective past ought to be focusing now on generating and promoting realistic policy and legal measures that will reduce looting of sites in the most cost-effective way. I have suggested a few such solutions (impose a modest tax on antiquities sales with revenues dedicated to funding site protection in the countries or regions of origin; jawbone wealthy collectors to fund a non-profit foundation to develop low-cost anti-looting technologies and shunt assistance to those countries facing the most pressing difficulties; persuade countries, with the US leading the way, to contribute to the UNESCO fund dealing with the problem). Others have suggested market-based mechanisms that would incentivize site protection; public-spirited initiatives to spur cities, universities, or even facebook members to adopt particular archaeological sites; and, of course, cultural-sensitivity campaigns designed to tamp down on the demand side of the antiquities market by demonizing collecting as akin to buying baby seal fur.

via Cultural Heritage in Danger: Loot versus Looting: Time to Address the Primary Policy Challenge

He calls for a “robust discussion” on the proposed solutions. I would think the non-profit and UNESCO fund contributions would be no-brainers, although they’d require substantial organizational initiatives. I’d like to hear more about the modest tax proposal. And as to cultural sensitivity campaigns, I’d rather have them be positive in nature (isn’t demonizing passe?), such as focusing on the benefits of proper excavation methods.

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  • Robust discussion assumes that contrary views should be encouraged. A number of archaeologists have told me point blank that they are afraid to expresss their own more moderate views because they will be blackballed by their colleagues that express an anti-collecting bias like that found on the SAFE blog. This is unfortunate because it leaves the impression that all members of the archaeological community believe that repressive measures against collectors (in source and market countries) should be the centerpiece of any “cultural heritage management.”

    Of course, keep in mind in many source countries there is a two tiered legal system. If you are a farmer that finds something, but you don’t want to turn it over to the State , you are a criminal. On the other hand, if you are “connected” with the ruling elites, you can collect anything you want whatever the local law might say. In my opinion, repressive laws seldom work as advertised and at the same time they promote little but public corruption.

    Such certainly was the case in Saddam’s Iraq. Desparately poor local people that tried to sell antiquities were subject to being shot if caught. On the other hand, it has been documented that Baath Party officials were involved in smuggling similar items for sale outside the country. I am unaware of any case where such individuals were “brought to justice” in what was an incredibly unjust legal system. Yet, you hear little about this form of corruption in Saddam’s Iraq on the SAFE blog and other like blogs sponsored by archaeologistst that seek to repress collecting.

  • If there is disparity in the way that the laws are enforced, then the question is whether authorities should be pushed to enforce them equally for the connected collectors, or whether the laws should be repealed or appropriately amended. A modest tax, as opposed to criminal penalties, should be easier to enforce across the board and would impact the connected collectors more than the farmer. I have not seen any serious discussions of this idea, but would be interested if anyone knows of one.

  • A couple of comments (apart from a thank-you to Kimberly for her kind words about my blog post):
    1. Peter Tompa calls for robust discussion, but robust discussion requires not simply pointing out the weaknesses of a policy — it requires offering an alternative that can be defended as a better approach to the problem. “Better” means not just more effective in the abstract, but implementable in the concrete. What does Tompa offer as an alternative, and how likely is it to be adopted and implemented?
    2. With regard to the relation between repressive laws and corruption, Tompa is wrong to argue that the only thing produced by repressive laws is corruption. Yes, some corruption is the price paid for strict laws, but the real question (one real question, rather) is whether those laws demonstrably result in a reduction in the rate of looting. And for Iraq, the facts are pretty clear: where the state was strong (before the 1991 war) and therefore capable as well as committed to enforcing its anti-looting laws, there was very little looting. Yes, there was some corruption, but the impact of corruption on looting of sites in Iraq was tiny compared with the impact of the absence first of enforcement capacity (in the 1990s) and then of law altogether (2003 and after).
    2. It is true that many states are not strong enough to enforce their anti-looting laws, and suffer from corruption as well, as Tompa points out. Does this mean there should not be laws against looting, or does it mean that additional resources should be offered those countries to assist their site policing efforts (with monitoring, of course, to determine whether the resources are reaching those who need them, etc.)?
    3. The slap at SAFE for not engaging in robust discussion is odd, given that my proposal was posted to SAFE.
    4. I am not suggesting that American criminal laws against dealing in or purchasing illicit antiquities should be repealed. I am simply suggesting that there would probably be less call for enforcing those laws more vigorously (and let’s be clear, there is almost no enforcement capacity here), if sites were well-protected.

  • Larry and Peter, thank you for the comments.

    Can I ask if SAFE (or the archaeological establishment generally) does seek to repress collecting? I honestly don’t know. I know that some archaeologists feel that some collecting is done unethically or illegally (without regard for improper excavation or even illegal exportation), and that they certainly wish to repress this, but I am unclear on whether collecting in and of itself (even if done ethically/legally) is viewed to be a problem.

    This question is for either of you or anyone.

  • There is no monolithic position, though it is fair to say that many archaeologists would be happy if buying and selling of all antiquities were made illegal, so that the only exchanges that occurred were museum-to-museum loans (and perhaps also partage of finds). The key point here is that whatever the preferences of archaeologists in an ideal world, no one believes that a world-wide ban on selling all antiquities whether provenanced or not (or even a ban on selling all antiquities in the US) stands a chance of ever being passed. The legal trade is a fact of life. The real question is how the legal trade can help us police the illegal trade more effectively.

  • Does the legal trade benefit from the illegal trade? I don’t know the answer, just something that occurred to me.

    Personally, I am not by default against the illegal trade, except to the extent that it furthers the unethical trade (that which injures creator cultures or “wastes” context, for example).

  • A couple of points.

    1. I’m not sure if there are any published statistics about looting in Iraq pre-1991. Post 1991, I understand local Baath party officials were allowed to loot sites and there has been literature to suggest that some of the artifacts missing from the Iraq Museum were stolen before the outset of the 2nd Gulf War.

    2. Certainly, repressive measures will lessen looting, but at what cost? Should looters not connected with the regime in power be shot? Or, should other less stringent measures be tried?

    3. I have engaged with Prof. Rothfield previously about suggestions with respect to lessening looting. Overall, I think the approach must be on a country by country basis and perhaps different rules should apply to different artifacts. I am a big fan of the UK Treasure Act and PAS. I think that it possibly can be applied elsewhere, perhaps in modified form.

    4. I’m not sure I see the SAFE blog as a place where robust discussion is much tolerated. I have posted reponses there from time to time and find that rejoinders can be downright insulting. Read through prior posts and the comments and you can judge for yourself.

    5. Overall, I think there needs to be room for debate WITHIN the archaeological community. Sorry, but there really cannot really be meaningful debate with collectors, dealers and museum people if the archaeological community itself is unwilling to allow it to happen internally. Look no further than Mr. Paul Bradford’s insulting responses to Derek Fincham on their respective blogs and you will see what I mean. (Mr. Barford is a frequent contributor to the SAFE blog.)


    Peter Tompa

  • RE: Larry Rothfield’s comments above:

    1. Regarding alternatives. Recognizing that coins stolen from the Kabul Museum could and probably did find their way to the international trade, the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild approached the embassy of Afghanistan about two years ago with an offer to host a web site and lead an effort to recover any coins known to have been part of the Kabul Museum holdings. There are several documented and photographed hoards involved, so this was not an idle or useless offer. The ACCG offered to do this at no cost to the Afghan government. Although the Afghan Cultural Attache in Washington was excited about this proposed venture, and the First Secretary of the embassy was open to further discussion, the offer was apparently rebuffed when it was presented up-channel. Several followups on our part met with silence from the Afghan embassy. One can only conjecture as to why that might be, but from my perspective it seems probable that the prospect of cooperation with collectors was deemed by some Afghan officials (or their advisors) to be undesirable. There are many possible alternatives, and cooperative initiatives, but they require an open dialogue.

    2. I take Dr. Rothfield’s comment that “it is fair to say that many archaeologists would be happy if buying and selling of all antiquities were made illegal” at face value. To me, as a collector, that is a very threatening statement. It should be easy enough for all to see that one can become polarized when faced with this sort of rhetoric (which I have been for several years now). I have repeatedly heard the statement “I am not opposed to collecting, I merely want to preserve the past.” In fact, Cindy Ho made this very comment to me in person at a CPAC hearing a couple years ago. The actions of those who make these “feel good” pronouncements speak to a contrary reality. I wish that these statements were genuine, and I wish that a dialogue were possible–but rhetoric that condemns the very concept of collecting, and its 600+ year-old tradition is a non-starter.

    Personally, I can be quite moderate and negotiable when dealing with others who are willing to adopt that framework. As a Board of Education member, I participated in a number of contract negotiations with teacher’s unions. I understand what it takes for opposing views to agree on a central position. I have repeatedly called for an authoritative voice of moderation in the archaeological community who will sit at a table and discuss cultural property issues rationally. Nobody has answered that call.

  • I do not know enough about the Afghan situation to be able to determine why there was no response to the offer by the ACCG. But I return to my central point, which is that we should spend less time complaining about each other and more time exploring solutions to the problem of looting. Not the problem of recovering looted items, but the problem of stopping non-archaeological digging or theft from museums. My proposal would tax sales of ancient coins and other antiquities in order to generate revenues that would be dedicated to help improve site policing and law enforcement efforts against illegal trafficking. (It might also be designed to provide a provenance-certifying mechanism.) The ACCG or others may have other better ideas. If so, let’s hear them!

  • A couple of other responses to Peter and Kimberly’s comments, which I did not catch until after the previous post.

    1. I am coming out with a book from the University of Chicago Press in April 2009, The Rape of Mesopotamia: Behind the Looting of the Iraq Museum, so believe me when I say I think I know what I am talking about when I tell you that the facts are that before Iraq was weakened by sanctions looting was minimal, that looting increased dramatically after the sanctions were imposed and exploded in early 2003 when Saddam was forced to shift all resources into preparing to defend against an invasion, and that the great majority of this looting was not done by corrupt officials. To my knowledge, there is no evidence that artifacts were stolen from the museum before the 2003 invasion. Peter should understand that it was the absence of law and order, not the corruption of it, that enabled the museum to be sacked and thousands of sites to be destroyed. We need more law and more order.

    2. On the question of whether the legal trade benefits from the illegal trade: this is a complicated one. It is clear that if the illegal trade is not being robustly policed, illegal artifacts will make their way into the legal trade, which benefits the dealers who have more material to sell. But it is also the case that when the heat is put on the illegal trade, dealers who have kosher artifacts can get more for them (witness the $57 million paid for the impeccably provenanced Mesopotamian figurine).

  • Kimberly,
    If I may, I would also try to provide some additional information to your question: “Does the legal trade benefit from the illegal trade?”

    The use of the word “legal” here is difficult. For example, we do not officially have import restrictions on material from Bulgaria, but it is illegal in Bulgaria to prospect for antiquities and also to export them without a permit. It is widely known that the Balkan region supplies much of the American market in recently surfaced antiquities. They appear on the American market through illegal means (illicitly dug up and exported), but American law can do little about it once they are here. Perhaps “ethical” is a better term to use than legal. In any case, most who study cultural property issues would agree that recently surfaced antiquities are routinely sold along those from older collections.

    I take issue with the statement by one of the above commentators that the dialogue between archaeologists about cultural property issues has not taken place. It has. Since the 1960′s/1970′s American archaeologists have been engaged in these issues and the AIA itself adopted an institutional ethical policy on recently surfaced antiquities in the 1973/1974. ASOR and the SAA did as well. Virtually every archaeological professional organization and research institute throughout the world has adopted ethical policies and codes of conduct regarding recently surfaced (alt. recently looted) antiquities.

    Larry Rothfield is correct. Certainly there are inadequacies in existing laws, but rather than simply pointing these out some solid well-thought out alternatives should be presented. American collectors and dealers have suggested PAS-like schemes applied in other source countries. This may help, but it is not a “cure all.” Nighthawks in the Britain still widely operate illegally on private lands and do not report finds. Other metal detectors violate the mandates of the PAS and the Treasure Act and have disturbed scheduled archaeological sites.

    From my point of view, one of the major reasons that the demand for recently surfaced antiquities remains high is that dealers do not exercise adequate due diligence in acquiring their material. I’ve discussed this several times but see here for example: http://coinarchaeology.blogspot.com/2008/07/good-faith-due-diligence-and-market.html

    Stringent due diligence is simply not profitable for many dealers in today’s antiquities market, especially those who trade in smaller objects, and so they don’t do it. Many American dealers of ancient coins are supplied by “wholesalers” of antiquities who are often of Bulgarian citizenship and who arrange for the shipping ancient coins and antiquities to the US en masse. You could perhaps argue this is “legal” if you want to look at from purely from an American perspective. If you are Bulgarian it is certainly illegal. In any case is it ethical? I think not.

  • Dear Miss Alderman:
    I would like to respond to your question “Can I ask if SAFE (or the archaeological establishment generally) does seek to repress collecting?” The answer is NO. SAFE encourages legal and ethical behavior among collectors, dealers, and museums to stop the trade in illicit antiquities. SAFE recognizes the ability of individuals and institutions to lawfully acquire and properly retain or transfer title of antiquities where authorized by law. Please read our statement of principles on http://www.savingantiquities.org/principles.php

    I would also like to take the opportunity to point out that SAFE is an independent non-profit organization. It does not represent or advocate for any particular profession, or academic discipline. We call for open discussions that examine practices and behavior that destroy cultural heritage. We have no “special interest” at stake except for the future of our past.

    We are scholars, professionals, educators, students, and others from all walks of life from around the world, who share our mission to raise public awareness about the irreversible damage that results from looting, smuggling and trading illicit antiquities.

    SAFECORNER is SAFE’s blog, the moderated online forum where dialogs begin, ideas exchange, and concrete solutions emerge concerning looting and the illicit antiquities trade. Contributors to SAFECORNER are members of the SAFE community and other experts and opinion leaders in the field of cultural heritage protection. We welcome comments and responses, although we encourage bloggers to read “Blogging on SAFECORNER” on http://safecorner.savingantiquities.org/2007/09/blogging-on-safecorner.html and observe our usage terms listed on the bottom of the page.

    As we indicate on our website http://www.savingantiquities.org/aboutusmission.php we value positive, collaborative, innovative projects driven by passionate and determined individuals. With a positive approach, we offer concrete ways to invest in the shared stewardship of the world’s cultural heritage. That is why we welcome proposals for solutions on SAFECORNER such as that from Professor Rothfield and Nathan Elkins’s “Towards a Forum for Constructive Dialogue” http://safecorner.savingantiquities.org/2007/12/towards-forum-for-constructive-dialogue.html .

    That is also why we can’t agree with you more: “And as to cultural sensitivity campaigns, I’d rather have them be positive in nature (isn’t demonizing passe?), such as focusing on the benefits of proper excavation methods.”

    Thank you very much for your interest.

    Cindy Ho
    SAFE/Saving Antiquities for Everyone

  • I must disagree with Ms. Ho that her organization is not anti-collector. Unless something has changed, members of her organization hold that collectors buying artifacts without a recorded provenance (some even say back to 1970) are likely dealing in “stolen” goods and even potentially supporting terrorism. This represents not only a great leap in logic but a highly inflammatory charge. For an alternate view of SAFE and what it represents, please see: http://culturalpropertyobserver.blogspot.com/2008/07/saving-antiquities-for-everyone.html As for the SafeCorner blog, the initial entries are often unsigned and can be quite provocative. One would think SAFE would take more responsibility for what appears on its own web site.


    Peter Tompa

  • Thank you all for the well-thought, responsive comments. For clarity’s sake, I have reduced the arguments made to bullet-points. I have eliminated all but statements of position and substantive arguments that speak to reducing looting. Please do not hesitate to correct me if I have inadvertently mischaracterized any positions.

    Peter Tompa

    • Apparent solidarity of archaeological establishment is unfounded. Some archaeologists are not anti-collecting.
    • Believes repressive laws are unproductive and promote corruption.
    • Believes anti-looting laws should be on a country-by-country basis. Suggests favoring a system that distinguishes between types of artifacts. Favors PAS and UK Treasure Act, and suggests these could be used elsewhere in modified form.
    • Favors open dialogue within the archaeological community.

    Larry Rothfield

    • Suggests corruption is only one result of repressive laws. The other is a reduction in looting.
    • Favors increased resources for source nations to enforce anti-looting laws. Believes this will trickle down to reduce illicit trade in market nations.
    • Agrees that some, but not all, archaeologists would like to see collecting banned, but, even so, considers it an unfeasible goal. Emphasizes goal is “how the legal trade can help us police the illegal trade more effectively.”
    • Distinguishes between stopping looting and recovering looted items.
    • Suggests taxes on ancient coins and other antiquities, using revenues to improve site policing and anti-trafficking efforts. Could design tax system to provide a provenance-certifying mechanism.


    • Favors an open dialogue between collectors and archaeologists. Favors moderation.

    Nathan Elkins

    • Comments PAS-like schemes are not a cure-all because there are still those operating illegally despite PAS.
    • Emphasizes importance of dealers exercising due diligence in acquiring materials.
    • Believes the legal trade of an illegally exported artifact is unethical.

    Barebones: What we are left with are suggestions for PAS-like systems and taxes on the legal trade to fund site protection. And, of course, for more open dialogue like this one.

  • Kimberly,
    Thank you for the summarization. On my views I would only add that the illegally exported artifacts in the “legal” trade are also most often illegally and recently looted (dug up without an excavation permit).

    PAS style schemes alone would not solve the problem in my view since the demand for antiquities is so high that it would not be profitable for suppliers and wholesalers to work only with surface finds from unscheduled sites. Clearly much of what appears on the market in general come from tombs or chiseled from standing monuments. I think the PAS style schemes would help to some degree, but really the demand for illicit antiquities needs to be seriously reduced and as long as dealers are willing to give a wink and handshake and buy everything in “good faith,” I don’t see how PAS schemes would work to their full potential in curbing systematic looting. In my view, the problems are largely caused by those who are profiting from the trade who are willing to provide for collector demand in spite of laws in source countries and in spite of ethical schemes and guidelines that are in place.

    I should also add that although there is a “legal” trade in illicitly exported and looted antiquities in the U.S., foreign countries have successfully sued for the return of such material in the American legal system. This doesn’t return or replace the loss of information that the looting of an object caused but it certainly casts doubt on the classification of the American trade in such objects as a wholly “legal” and ethical one.