Antiquities Trade and the Responsible Collector

The trade in New World antiquities today is as robust as it has ever been, thanks in part to—what until recently—had been a healthy global economy. Quality pieces continue to bring high prices at auctions and shows, and New World art continues to be a solid investment vehicle for both collectors and institutions, with values increasing over time despite the fluctuations of the stock market.

This continued demand has also been fueling the illicit trade, and looting in many parts of Central and South America goes on unabated. This is in large part due to inadequate laws and officials who are willing to look the other way.

A recent, highly publicized seizure of 700 pre-Columbian artifacts from a shop in Peru may or may not point to a crackdown there. As it turns out, the shop was located across the street from the National Museum in Lima and had been there for some time. It was only when visiting journalists saw an ad and reported it to local officials that any action was taken.

One would have to assume that museum employees were aware of the existence of the shop and its wares prior to the bust and had simply not cared enough to report it. It’s this sort of passive or dismissive attitude on the part of officials, and often the populace, who see the artifacts that represent their collective cultural history as a commodity.

A looted pre-Columbian cemetery in Peru.

A looted pre-Columbian Cemetery in Peru.

Of course, no commodity has value if there isn’t a ready market and buyers who are willing to pay. And it’s difficult to fault people who are often living far below the poverty line for exploiting this resource.

Ultimately, it is the dealers and collectors who knowingly or unknowingly finance this trade in undocumented artifacts. Responsible collectors should insist on buying only those items with a paper trail that can prove legal ownership.

Unfortunately for the collector, the vast majority of objects for sale have no such documentation to prove either ownership or authenticity.

Most collectors view themselves as being caring custodians or amateur archaeologists who appreciate the art and often have an interest in better understanding the cultures from which the pieces came. Historically, it was this interest in the material culture of ancient societies that gave rise to modern archaeology. It is the modern archaeologist who has made the recent distinction between legitimate and illegitimate collecting practices and who should be allowed to care for the world’s shared and finite material culture.

No one wants to see sites destroyed, and objects without context have limited value to science. Collectors—both individuals and institutions—have always had similar interests in the recovery and display of cultural objects, and both have been criticized for their collecting practices at times. There is a long tradition of conquering nations carting off the cultural treasures of the conquered to fill museums back home. In the early years of the last century, universities and museums assumed this role by sponsoring digs around the world as legitimate science and to build their own collections. This was often encouraged and supported by the host governments.

Today, many of these governments, including Mexico and Peru—which both have strict national patrimony laws—are actively working for the return of objects relating to their pre-Columbian past and are working with American museums and universities to that end.

US Customs Press Conference

A recent press conference by U.S. Customs officials during which 400 smuggled artifacts were returned to Peru

One of the notable current cases is that of Yale University, which sponsored digs at Machu Picchu from 1912 to 1914. Hilda Vidal, a curator at Lima’s National Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, makes an argument for the return of the collection:

“My opinion reflects the opinion of most Peruvians. In general, anything that is patrimony of the cultures of the world, whether in museums in Asia or Europe or the United States, came to be there during the times when our governments were weak and the laws were weak, or during the Roman conquest or our conquest by the Spanish.

“Now that the world is more civilized, these countries should reflect on this issue. It saddens us Peruvians to go to museums abroad and see a Paracas textile. I am hopeful that in the future, all the cultural patrimony of the world will return to its country of origin.”

As collectors of antiquities, we have responsibilities, a responsibility to care for those things for which we are temporary custodians, to be considerate of our acquisitions and concerned about where the items we are collecting have come and to whom they really belong.

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