A Call for Antiquities Leasing

Peter Wendel, a Law Professor at Perpperdine University has written an interesting new article in the most recent edition of the Fordham Law Review, Protecting Newly Discovered Antiquities: Thinking Outside the “Fee Simple” Box, 76 Ford. L. Rev. 1016 (2007). A .pdf version is available here. Here’s the abstract:

Newly discovered antiquities are “mixed goods.” They have a physical component (the object itself) and an intangible component (the archeological and historical information associated with the discovery). This dual nature justifies government intervention into the market, not to capture the positive externalities associated with the antiquity, but to minimize the negative externalities associated with the law of finders. When the typical finder excavates an antiquity, its historical and archeological information is severely damaged, if not destroyed. In response to this problem, source countries have enacted state ownership/retention statutes. These laws, however, have their own negative externalities. They create incentives for finders to turn to the black market to secure financial compensation and to destroy the historical and archeological information to make it more difficult to catch them. This raises the issue of which is worse: market failure or government intervention failure?

Source countries need to create a stronger incentive for finders to report their finds. In theory, this is easy: Pay the finders more. In practice, this is difficult because source countries tend to be antiquities-rich but revenue-poor. A possible solution is a “possessory estate and future interest approach” to newly discovered antiquities. If the finder reports the find, he receives a transferable term of years and the source country receives the future interest. A transferable term of years creates an incentive for the finder to go public with the find—the finder can profit from his or her discovery. The source country receives ultimate ownership of all newly discovered antiquities at minimal cost (Western museums will be the likely purchasers; they will pay for the cost of creating the incentive). A possessory estate and future interest approach could help end the current feud between source countries and Western museums, two entities that should work together to secure and protect newly discovered antiquities, not waste resources fighting each other.

It’s an interesting approach. Wendel justifies his claim by using a law and economics rationale. What he’s advocating is a kind of antiquities leasing, similar in concept to the practice in both England and Wales, and Scotland of rewarding finders. He starts from the position that the strong source regulation of nationalizing antiquities and prohibiting their export does not work. I think most can agree the current legal regime is not working. He then advocates giving finders a kind of limited temporary right, known in the Anglo-American legal system as a “possessory estate” and a “future estate” or ultimate vesting right would go to the source nation. That would allow finders of antiquities to profit off their discoveries, while allowing the source nation to ultimately receive ownership of the object.

In essence he’s making an interesting claim for the use of antiquities leasing and a renewal of the idea of partage, the traditional practice whereby foreign archaeologists would get to take a portion of the discovered objects back to their European or N. American institutions. It’s a pragmatic compromise, and one that may work well in practice. I envision substantial hesitation on the part of source nations to enacting such a system though.

I would welcome a discussion of the merits of this idea in the comments section.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

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