The illegal antiquities market is extremely difficult to quantify. The nature of the smuggling networks and a code of silence between buyers and sellers make it next to impossible to confirm solid numbers for analysis. One of the few places for which hard data is available is the antiquities auction market. In 2015, researchers from the University of Chicago analyzed the historic sale prices and market trends of antiquities sales in auction houses in New York and London, and concluded that landmark legal decisions, and their subsequent enforcement, have a direct and statistically significant correlation to an increase in both the value of, and demand for, artifacts with legal provenance versus those of questionable origin. These statistics held true, not only for objects of high quality and aesthetic value, but also for more mundane objects that would likely not have been the foci of international repatriation cases.
Conversely, one could infer that, should there be any decrease in either the strength of antiquities protection laws or their enforcement, the market preference for artifacts with documented legality over those of questionable origins may shift again in a manner that makes it easier to obtain a high dollar amount for looted antiquities. In other words, an easy sale means more looting.
As advocates of cultural heritage, this information is a vital tool for analyzing how our work can contribute to quantifiable change. SAFE has long called for tough legal action against those who engage in illicit digging and trade in illegal antiquities, from publicly questioning the rulings of Judge Waddoupos in the trafficking case against Jeanne and James Redd, to testifying on behalf of countries seeking to enter MOUs with the United States.
Now, the question becomes, what can we do now to encourage stronger laws and stricter enforcement? Recent developments, like Florida’s House Bill 803 are not encouraging. One of the most important things that we can do is promote awareness of these laws, emphasizing the legal repercussions for anyone engaged in the antiquities smuggling trade. As Beacon award winner Dr. Monica Hanna has shown us, social media can be a powerful tool for disseminating information. It is not enough to “like” a related news story; while this may inform your close friends, most will not see it appear on their news feeds. Instead, we need to actively share news so that it eventually reaches the eyes and ears of those who make the laws, as well as those who break them.
The full report from the University of Chicago may be found here.
Tell us, what do you think?
Photo: Native American pottery being exhibited at a press conference on illegal looting./ Courtesy of the U.S Department of the Interior on Flickr
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