For three days in May 2013, a diverse group of urban planners, economists, anthropologists, and others joined together to discuss matters of economics and cultural heritage—its market value(s) and their social implications. The University of Massachusetts Amherst Center for Heritage and Society hosted the conference “The Past For Sale? The Economic Entanglements of Cultural Heritage” on 15–17 May 2013. This event is especially meaningful at the 10th anniversary of the looting of the Iraq Museum and the founding of SAFE. The following summary focuses on topics most related to SAFE and is based on my own observations and those papers that I was able to attend.
One of the three major themes of the conference, aligning exactly with SAFE’s purpose and mission, was “Archaeological Looting, the Antiquities Market, and Its Costs.” At least four sessions and one of the plenary addresses, Neil Brodie’s “The Antiquities Market: It’s All In a Price,” were directly related to this theme. Numerous papers in the other two themes—“Tourism” and “Urban Revitalization”—touched on issues of looting or antiquities markets. Across these broad themes, presenters tackled many SAFE-related issues, including looters and market sources, regulations and policy development, and analyses of specific antiquities markets.
Several papers aimed to shed light on the “looters” or market sources. Cristiana Panella of the Royal Museum for Central Africa, Belgium, described the social organization of digging in Mali within a larger economic system. Farmer/diggers participate in a diverse set of cash activities involving cotton farming, clandestine digging, and other contraband, yet their situation is more nuanced than the stereotypes promoted by media and Mali elite. Similarly, Peri Johnson working in the Ottoman lands of Turkey examined the interrelations of archaeologists and both small- and large-scale looters. While small-scale looters are often local (and disenfranchised) people, outsiders do most of the large-scale looting, further cutting off the local inhabitants from their own lands and resources. One contribution to the poster session addressed similar issues: Giacomo M. Tabita analyzed “the criminal phenomenon of ‘Archaeo-Mafia’ and its social costs on the local communities in Italy.” These are just a few examples of the many groups around the world who find themselves disenfranchised from and/or compelled to exploit any number of resources in their own region.
Other presenters work toward reducing damages to sites and cultural materials through site management practices, including controlling tourists’ means of access. One example was the use of digital technologies at Jetavana Monastery presented by Ashley de Vos. Here, a comprehensive research program informed a virtual reality site animation program, which is used in locations throughout the site to add to the visitors’ experience in places that are closed for protection.
Another example, and one that crosscuts several major issues, is Nelly Robles Garcia and Jack Corbett’s presentation on Oaxaca, Mexico and the major archaeology work in the community of Santa Maria Atzompa, on the outskirts of the Monte Albán World Heritage site. The site was faced with encroachment, commercial exploitation, and other threats, as many groups of stakeholders battled for access to various resources. Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) developed frameworks for the competing interests, while also limiting threats to Monte Albán. One result of the work is the success story of the creation and recent opening of the new Community Museum, which brings economic and cultural benefits to the people of Santa Maria Atzompa while also giving them new incentives to help care for the Monte Albán protected zone.
Presenters also gave a lot of attention to the regulations and policies that govern antiquities and treatment of heritage resources. Donna Yates and Ross A. Elgin compared and analyzed the regulation (and commercialization) of palaeontological and archaeological materials, pondering whether or not it is advantageous to lump these two types of remains, natural and cultural, together for purposes of regulation. Questions of management and treatment of natural and cultural heritage also come up frequently in discussions about UNESCO World Heritage sites, so analyses of the similar and different needs of these two types of heritage (often combined) are very pertinent to many of the issues addressed in this conference, including heritage markets. Lawrence Rothfield looked “Beyond the antiquities market” in analyzing the economics of looting and looting prevention, arguing that we must pay attention to external market factors to seek policy solutions that make the antiquities market pay for the costs its activities impose. Senta German and Fiona Rose-Greenland discussed the concept of WikiLoot, assessing the pros and cons of this crowdsourcing model in the regulation of the antiquities market.
In the session on Markets in Cultural Heritage Objects, each paper focused on a particular set (or market) of historical or archaeological materials. Presentations featured the markets for World War II artifacts, mosaics from Turkey, the high-end auction market for Pre-Columbian antiquities, and early Bronze Age pots from the Dead Sea plain in Jordan. The session also included a philosophical discussion about the moral limits of markets, and similarities of some cultural heritage markets with “noxious” markets. These papers each drew attention to the variety of ways in which cultural materials are exchanged, whether illegally or legally.
Many World War II artifacts are bought and sold at large conventions, where story-telling and deal-making abound, but facts and documentation are often scarce. The convention-goers do not appear to mind that situation now, but with fewer war veterans among us to tell the stories, both the historical and commercial value of these artifacts will rise. I’ll bet that future generations will feel a pang of regret for the casual attitude toward documentation. Scarcity of documentation also remains an issue in high-end antiquities auctions, where “provenance” or “place of origin” is (with sometimes curiously high frequency) stated as a country with which the United States does not have a Memorandum of Understanding. This point appeared to be demonstrated with data from high-end auctions of Pre-Columbian antiquities from 2000–2010 in a paper by Sasha Renninger, Brian Daniels, and Richard Leventhal.
Morag Kersel, in her discussion about antiquities from Jordan, showed two different sides of markets in Bronze Age pots. New marketing approaches and a legal antiquities market in Israel coincide with rampant looting at some Holy Land sites. But we also saw a positive example of a sale by the Department of Antiquities of Jordan of assemblages of Bronze Age pots to various educational institutions. The sales included certain requirements for proper display and treatment of the complete assemblages. Following these arrangements, the institutions have since maintained longstanding support of excavations in Jordan.
SAFE Beacon Award winner Neil Brodie covered many aspects of the high-end antiquities markets in his plenary address titled “The Antiquities Market: It’s All In a Price.” At the outset, he called the antiquities market a “gray” market: one in which the illicit and licit sales often are commingled, and an item’s legal status depends on its documentation and source country, rather than on the object itself. This situation is a source of many of the problems involved in this market. Law enforcement officers have a very difficult job in determining whether an item is being illicitly transported or purchased. The same can be true for dealers, buyers, and others involved (often to their advantage).
This murkiness in the market, especially for the purposes of high-end auction houses and museums, centers on the concept of provenance. Buying on financial speculation can be risky, and if export documents are shown to be fake (as in the well known case of the Sevso Treasure), the items become unsaleable. Similarly, many museums have had to repatriate antiquities proven to have been stolen and/or illegally exported from the country of origin.
If an item has a clear, solid provenance, it usually fetches a higher price at auction. If “experts” have evaluated or studied the item, providing identification, attributions, or “authentication” (adding embedded “cultural capital” as Brodie describes), this can also raise the monetary value. To me as an archaeologist, this situation seems backward. Why do the actors in this part of the “gray” market rip items out of the ground, then work hard after the fact to fabricate a phony provenance and uncertain attributions? If their antiquities came from archaeological excavations through legal means, they’d not only have a clear “provenance,” but thorough archaeological context, knowledge about the artifact’s place in its ancient society, and overall a much more interesting story to tell. (An example of this type of approach was seen in Morag Kersel’s paper, mentioned above.) Wouldn’t that increase its value more than an insincere “guarantee of authenticity”?
The problems with this gray market continue when we consider additional dilemmas: are scholars encouraging shady market practices when they research or publish about antiquities in the gray market? Or worse, if they use items for research that were stolen during military conflicts (such as from Iraq or Syria), are they somehow contributing to insurgencies or more traditional “black” markets? When buying antiquities, are museum curators consulting their network of suppliers, or are they indulging in conspiracy?
Such questions have vexed the antiquities markets for decades or longer, and Neil Brodie’s address was not intended to answer all of them—but his research and the work of many others in the field continues to shed light on the complex antiquities gray market. Responding to a question from the audience, Brodie said (probably correctly) that individual or small-scale looting, such as individual tourists buying a couple looted artifacts for souvenirs, likely does not add up to much of the overall illicit antiquities market. I suspect that is true, but one small archaeological site destroyed by looting might have been a large portion of one community’s archaeological heritage. And that in my opinion is a very high cost.
It is hoped that the combined research efforts of those working in economics, tourism, heritage management, and related fields, might help to develop new practices resulting in favorable economic development alongside responsible treatment of cultural heritage resources of all types.