Britt Peterson's fine article makes it clear that James Cuno's deeply flawed argument against current cultural patrimony laws is motivated by the self-interest of museums in acquiring more artifacts regardless of provenance. But Cuno is right in one regard: the present system of laws and policies is failing to prevent the industrial-scale looting of archaeological sites worldwide. We are losing our past at an unprecedented rate to feed the demand by collectors for the one artifact in fifty dug that is of saleable quality. Protecting the sites is the problem we should be focusing on, not what to do with the artifacts once they have been ripped from the ground and their context destroyed.
Yet nowhere in the article are any realistic, concrete policy prescriptions offered to address this challenge. We cannot expect individual civilians who do value their heritage to risk their lives protecting it against organized crime networks that often corrupt the governmental agencies that are supposedly fighting them. Nor can we expect that the market demand for antiquities will die if museums adopt a more ethically pure policy of not acquiring insufficiently well-provenanced pieces; collectors will continue to buy, and museums in other countries will continue to acquire.
One possible solution is to harness the power of the market by taxing sales of antiquities and using the revenues to assist source countries in securing the sites from which these artifacts came. A 5 percent tax, for instance, would have yielded enough from the $57 million paid for a single Mesopotamian figurine recently to have nearly doubled the budget of Iraq's antiquities agency.
Other policies are imaginable as well. The important thing is to move past the sterile debates about retentionism and restitution to get at the real and still unaddressed problem of securing archaeological sites against looting.
Jan 31 2009 - 10:47am