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The Great MFA ExposÚ

Hershel Shanks

Click here to purchase the May/June 1999 Archaeology Odyssey containing this article with all accompanying photos and illustrations.
  Last year, on the Sunday between Christmas and New Year's, the lead story on the front page of The Boston Globe was not about President Clinton's impending impeachment trial in the Senate, nor about Saddam Hussein's effort to shoot down American planes over the no-fly zone in northern Iraq, but about the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, known locally as the MFA, which, according to the newspaper, was buying looted antiquities.

Two days earlier, the author of the article, Globe reporter Walter V. Robinson, received the first Public Service Award of the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA) for earlier exposÚs of the MFA and other museums, charging unethical, if not illegal, trading in looted antiquities. The AIA citation noted the "long-standing conflicts between countries rich in archaeological heritage and U.S. museums."

Truth to tell, I'm kinda glad the MFA bought the stuff. At least that way I'll be able to see it.

To the grandees of the AIA that is heresy. They would like nothing better than to put antiquities dealers out of business because they form the final link between the illegal diggers and the collecting public, including museums. The AIA leadership's idea of fun is to get together with a bottle of beer and hiss antiquities collectors, those ultra-rich people who buy from the dealers. The theory is, If the collectors are vilified enough, they will stop collecting.

The new charge in The Boston Globe involves "scores of Greek and Roman antiquities," including two vases and an amphora painted by one of the most renowned artisans of his time, known simply as the Darius Painter. These pieces date to about the late fourth century B.C. and come from Apulia in southeastern Italy. The museum describes the vases as "two of the greatest South Italian vases in America."

Other artifacts that were supposedly illegally excavated and bought by or donated to the MFA include a rare Mycenaean terracotta idol from about 1300 B.C., a Greek vase from Tuscany, seventh-century B.C. ceramic cups from a site near Rome, a bust of Hercules from about 150 B.C. and other marble statuary.

Of the 71 artifacts purchased or given to the museum on which the Globe investigation focused, only 10 had any record of prior ownership, or provenance. That is a "dead giveaway," says the article, that these artifacts had been illegally excavated or illegally smuggled out of the country of origin. Quoting archaeologists, the article says that since the pieces had "no pedigree at all, [this was] strong evidence that most of them had been recently unearthed by grave robbers."

The article charged that "the MFA, and some of its peer institutions, are ethically tone deaf." According to Boston University archaeologist Murray C. McClellan, "There is a pattern by the MFA of acquiring looted material that was illegally excavated in Italy." The article describes "a storm over the museum's ethics."

I am not here to defend either the ethics or the legality of the MFA's acquisition policies. Nor do I defend looters. On the contrary, I hate them. They should be arrested, tried and jailed. On this we can all agree. The question, however, is what should be done once their loot enters the antiquities market.

The establishment position, espoused by the AIA and many archaeologists, is that no one should deal in and no one should collect unprovenanced pieces. If that were to happen, there would be no market for the looters. Then they would stop looting, so the argument runs.

The argument is airtight—except for its unarticulated premise: that it is possible either by way of laws or by education or both to eliminate dealing in and collecting unprovenanced antiquities. If that premise is unfounded—as it patently is—then all the laws and all the efforts at education simply drive the market underground. Instead of the MFA's acquiring the pieces, they will be acquired by someone else and we will never know about it. And we will never see the pieces.

In short, we must recognize the undeniable fact that current policies simply drive the market underground without having significant impact on the problem.

Instead of asking how we can stop traffic in unprovenanced antiquities, we should ask how we can stop looting—or at least reduce it.

There are essentially two ways to attack the looting problem: by laws and education, and by economics.

Until now, the attack has been almost exclusively via laws and education. Certainly these have a place in the overall scheme. At the most basic level, you can't legally dig without a permit and permits are issued only to qualified archaeologists. Other laws declare antiquities in the ground the property of the state. Export of antiquities is regulated and often forbidden. International conventions prohibit the importation of illegally excavated artifacts. Only lawyers specializing in this field have a general familiarity with all the laws—and even they cannot pretend to know them in detail.

One thing we know for sure: These laws have not prevented widespread looting of archaeological sites. The antiquities market, including large quantities of looted objects, is thriving.

Education helps, but only a little. Education can discourage collecting, but this has a cost. Many people find collecting both educational and emotionally inspiring. Having an ancient artifact, such as a common clay oil lamp, can often be the beginning of a lifelong interest in ancient history and related subjects. On the other hand, there are other ways to excite interest, and giving up collecting would be a small price to pay if, through education, collecting could be substantially eliminated and if that stopped looting—two very big ifs.

The fact is that neither laws nor education has made even a dent in the problem. And this is widely acknowledged. The reaction of the archaeological establishment has been threefold: (1) advocating ever stiffer laws and international conventions aimed at preventing trade in looted antiquities; (2) attacking antiquities dealers in general, vilifying prominent collectors and quarantining artifacts without a provenance; and (3) taking comfort in the high moral ground.

*My economist friends tell me that relegating the purchase and sale of looted antiquities to the black market would likely increase their price. The competition for looted pieces would be just as intense as long as there were a significant number of buyers. So the price would go up because (1) the costs of making transactions would increase and (2) the product would be rarer. No longer could people see the items in a museum; the only way to enjoy them would be to buy them—on the black market, at prices perhaps even higher because the objects could no longer be viewed elsewhere.


(1) Efforts, sometimes successful, have been made to outlaw antiquities dealers. Local laws simply put them out of business. When that happens, the least reputable among them prosper by going underground. The antiquities market continues to thrive—for example, in Turkey and Egypt—despite the fact that trading in antiquities is illegal and there are no legal antiquities dealers there.*

(2) Attacking dealers and collectors takes many forms. One example is the Globe's exposÚ of the Boston Fine Arts Museum for accepting donations of and sometimes purchasing unprovenanced artifacts, many of which have probably been illegally excavated or exported, although this can seldom be proven.

Members of the archaeological establishment avert their eyes from unprovenanced artifacts as if they were the most vulgar pornography. Thus a paper describing an unprovenanced artifact cannot be given at the AIA's annual meeting; neither can the item be published in its scholarly journal. A proposal recently under consideration by the American Oriental Society would prohibit a citation in its journal of the publication of an unprovenanced artifact.

This is difficult to understand. It is a little like cutting off your nose to spite your face. It deprives all of us of valuable information—and has no significant effect on the problem of looting. Many leading scholars refuse to be restricted by this foolishness. After all, most of the Dead Sea Scrolls were acquired on the antiquities market. The only likely relic from Solomon's temple came from the antiquities market. Inscriptions, seals and bullae continue to surface in this way. The choice is simple: Either purchase, in effect ransom, unprovenanced antiquities and let scholars and the public see them or let them disappear perhaps forever through a private sale elsewhere on the underground market.

**See, for example, Frank Moore Cross, "King Hezekiah's Seal Bears Phoenician Imagery," Biblical Archaeology Review, March/April 1999; Hershel Shanks, "Leading Archaeologist Chastised for Publishing Artifacts in Private Collections," Biblical Archaeology Review, November/December 1997, p. 33 (Order this issue); P. Kyle McCarter, Jr., "In Private Hands: Pieces of the Puzzle," Biblical Archaeology Review, March/April 1996 (Order this issue); and Nahman Avigad, Hebrew Bullae from the Time of Jeremiah: Remnants of a Burnt Archive (Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 1986).

***See "AIA: 'Okay to Publicize Grants from Antiquities Collectors'," Biblical Archaeology Review, September/October 1998.


Fortunately, the most prominent scholars continue to publish important unprovenanced artifacts that surface on the antiquities market.**

The argument on the other side is that an artifact ripped from its context is worthless—an obviously false assertion: It may be worth less, but it is not worthless! And sometimes the lack of an archaeological context is not as significant as we would be led to believe. Sure, it would be better if we knew precisely how the Apulian vases now in the MFA were situated in the graves from which they were looted and what was found with them, but we do know generally where they came from, when they were made, etc. I hasten to add that this doesn't mean that looting is good; it is very bad. But, for that very reason, we should not exaggerate the damage it causes.

One recent extreme example of quarantining involved prominent collectors who have established a substantial fund for the scholarly publication of overdue archaeological reports. Two AIA committees wanted to forbid the announcement of these publication grants in AIA journals.*** The grants were apparently dirty money because they came from collectors.

(3) The high moral ground: Professor Philip Betancourt of Temple University is a leading opponent of antiquities dealers and collectors. In a recent discussion with him, I argued that outlawing the one and vilifying the other was in fact ineffective. He recognized that that was the case, but replied in evident frustration, "At least when I reach the end, I will know that I lived a life of integrity." He was referring to the fact that this magazine and our sister magazine, Biblical Archaeology Review, accept ads from antiquities dealers. AIA publications do not. Our reason is simple: They are legal, not patently offensive and we are deeply dedicated to the principles enshrined in the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. (In discussions like this, the response is often that I am also dedicated to the cash that the antiquities dealers pay for the ads. True, but this is relatively insignificant.) Although Betancourt later apologized to me, he was clearly reflecting the common view that people who disagreed with him—and, a fortiori, dealers and collectors—were not, and could not be, persons of integrity.

In short, these establishment scholars who condemn antiquities dealers and collectors get a fine, warm fuzzy feeling from the high moral ground they see themselves as occupying.

What is basically wrong with their stance is that they concentrate almost exclusively on denouncing dealers and collectors (and their unprovenanced artifacts) instead of asking what can be done, as a practical matter, to stop, or at least reduce, looting. To the extent that their efforts ignore other avenues that might be more effective, their efforts are in fact counterproductive. And that is where my criticism chiefly lies.

What, then, can be done?

A necessary first step is a recognition that simply attacking dealers and collectors has not been and will not be an effective strategy. It simply drives the market underground and deprives us all of the instruction, albeit limited, that is available even from looted objects. If you are concerned about looting, you must at least stop and think—attend conferences and write papers—about other ways of dealing with the problem.

What follows are the ideas of someone who has been thinking about the problem for many years. These ideas are not presented as the solution or even as definitive suggestions. They are matters for serious consideration. They are based on the recognition that there are no easy answers, no pat solutions. They acknowledge that we are often faced with the need to choose the least bad approach. They are presented in the hope that they will encourage others to come forward and present their ideas to the public. They are intended to open a discussion, to make it OK to talk about these things without being charged with being immoral or lacking in integrity. In making them, I want to shift the discussion from how we can put the dealers out of business and how we can most hurtfully vilify collectors to how, as a practical matter, we can deal with the problem of widespread looting of archaeological sites.

They are economic solutions.

Take the vases of the Darius Painter, the subject of current controversy at the MFA. We know almost precisely where they come from. It's no secret. Mr. Robinson describes it in his article. He's even been there and taken pictures. It's in the wheat-growing area of Apulia, he tells us, where there are thousands of tombs. Robinson was shown fields that were "pockmarked" with illegally excavated tombs. The looters, tomb robbers known as tombaroli, "have taken tens of thousands of vases over the last 15 years, so brazenly that they often employ mechanical excavators."

Wow! The Italian government can't stop this? It's been going on for 15 years? Tens of thousands of vases? And then you make a front-page story of the MFA's buying a couple of them? You think that's going to affect the market?

Whatever the reason the Italian government can't stop this—corruption in high or low places, lack of funds, lack of will, lack of interest—you can be sure of one thing: It would immediately be stopped—it would never have started—if this land were owned by the Apulian Tomb Company, a private corporation.

Why the difference? Because the tomb company could realize the value of the vases (and other artifacts) in the tombs. The Italian government can't. If the government provides funds for archaeologists to excavate the tombs, the vases go into some storeroom or perhaps an Italian museum that already has more than it needs and in any event doesn't pay for it. No money is produced for a scientific excavation, so it doesn't occur.

I am not suggesting that the land be sold to a private company. But I am suggesting that only by realizing the value of the vases—on the market—can this looting be stopped. In short, the funds realized from the sale of the vases (perhaps limited to an appropriate buyer such as a museum or a university) could be used for proper scientific excavation of these tombs.

A paradox: Archaeologists are, as a group, poor as church mice. Yet they handle priceless objects every day.

Another paradox: Only the most dedicated today become archaeologists, because more and more they are doomed to a life for which the public as a whole has little appreciation. Many archaeologists cannot even find jobs; they turn to other professions when their unemployment checks run out. Yet we badly need them to replace the looters.

There is no one way to do this, but the answer lies somewhere in a marriage—even a marriage of convenience—between the archaeological profession, on the one hand, and museums and maybe even collectors, on the other. The latter would provide archaeologists with the funds for scientific excavation of sites that are subject to looting, while a portion of the legally and scientifically excavated "loot" would be available in museums and universities for further research, as well as for public viewing.

*See Avner Raban, "Stop the Charade," Biblical Archaeology Review, May/June 1997.  

Especially when there are thousands of what are essentially duplicates, why not also allow some artifacts to be owned by private collectors, as well as local museums and cultural institutions? As is widely recognized within the profession, there is simply no more space in the storerooms of excavating universities, government antiquities departments and museums for the thousands upon thousands of duplicates that are coming out of the ground.* As a result much of this material is stolen, lost, misplaced, broken, poorly conserved or totally unconserved and, as a practical matter, is unavailable for research after a few years.

With the aid of computers, scientists could keep track of where valuable items are in case they are later needed for research. But many items are simply too pedestrian for people to go to this trouble. Lamps and pots from Israel and Jordan are examples. For years the site of Tell Beit Mirsim on the West Bank, famous because it was here that William F. Albright established a great deal of Iron Age pottery chronology, was systematically looted. The finds were not particularly valuable or interesting. There is no reason that professional archaeologists should not have excavated the site scientifically, studied the finds to the extent appropriate and then sold the pottery to pay for the excavation.

As I write, a site in Jordan, Bab edh-Dhra, is being systematically looted. It consists primarily of an Early Bronze Age cemetery. The grave goods are not particularly stunning or valuable, although they are interesting and provide us with important information about life at that time. American archaeologists excavated the site over a long period of time, studied the finds, published them (and are continuing to publish them) and left the site—to the looters. Here, too, professional archaeologists could be employed—if funds could be found. What about funds from the sale of the artifacts? Or funds provided by a private collector who would share in the finds? This may not be an ideal solution, but compared to leaving the site to looters, it's a wonderful solution.

Even though these ideas make good sense, they do face obstacles. First, there is no steam behind them. On the contrary, they are considered heretical. That is why the profession must take the first step—to legitimate the topic, or at least open the discussion. There is a certain pervasive McCarthyite atmosphere, however, that now prevents open discussion. I have talked to dozens of professionals who are not only receptive to these ideas, but welcome them; however, they are reluctant to say so publicly. Why not an AIA forum to discuss them?

Even directors of government antiquities departments often welcome these ideas. But they too have their problems. Espousing these ideas would soon lead to accusations from their political opponents that they are "selling our heritage." Some way must be found to bring together the directors of antiquities from all the antiquities-rich countries around the Mediterranean (and also somewhat beyond) to see if they can find protection in numbers. At the very least, they should get together to consider seriously the common problem they all face: looting.

Finally, museums, dealers and collectors should all be enlisted in the effort to stop looting. Instead of treating these groups as pariahs, they must be enlisted in the cause. It is they who have both money and political clout. Without that, the problem cannot be solved—or even addressed. When collectors are vilified, they simply go underground. They no longer want to share their treasures with the public. The holier-than-thou stance of the establishment deprives us all of the knowledge we would have from the publication of private collections.

Based on my experience, I believe the vital interests of all groups—governments, professional archaeologists, museums, dealers and the collecting public—can be met through open discussion, flexible accommodation and joint effort. The result may not be a perfect solution, but it is certain to be better than what is happening now.

Isn't it time to get started?


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