Buying Fake Antiquities (UPDATE)

Felix Salmon has an interesting discussion of the sale of fake antiquities, prompted by Charles Stanish’s initial article, with a lengthy response by Prof. Stanish himself.  As I commented there, those who follow these debates have enjoyed a thought-provoking series of responses to Prof. Stanish’s terrific initial article. I don’t doubt that many collectors are buying fakes. But I wonder at the efficacy of the typical archaeologist position—calling their actions an “irrational behavior” may be true enough, but is it wise?

As a lawyer, trying to craft a legal solution to these problems given the limits of funding and law enforcement resources is only made more difficult when partisans shout across the divide like this. I don’t dispute there are fakes, or that individuals shouldn’t perhaps collect many of the objects they collect. But we will never eradicate the desire of collectors to collect. Are there compromise positions which archaeologists may adopt that would shift this desire in helpful directions? Yes, but insulting those with a different view of material cultural heritage doesn’t get us any closer to any pragmatic solutions.


Paul Barford responds here.  He uses as examples of things which should not be compromised: the collection of wild bird eggs, drink driving, ivory poachers and child abuse.  Unfortunately he doesn’t follow through with any of these analogs, and they strike me as a bit bizarre. 

He states archaeologists should not compromise.  That is one view of course, and it is played out in Mr. Barford’s own blog, which does not allow commenting and has badly distorted many of my positions in the past.  Mr. Barford and I probably don’t disagree on many of the core problems, indeed he probably doesn’t disagree with what many collectors state publicly.  There exists broad consensus that looting of sites is a problem, and should be illegal.  The disagreement arises when we consider the legal measures which should respond.  He seems to take every instance of looting as an indication that “stronger” laws are needed.  But of course he never gives any concrete details.  I’d encourage Mr. Barford to consider the sentiments of Colin Renfrew, which I’ll paraphrase:  in the 30-plus years since the 1970 UNESCO Convention, has there been a decrease in the looting of sites?  Why?  Is it all because of collectors?  Or is it instead the inevitable result of some of these laws and regulations which have created a stronger black market?  What is Mr. Barford’s ideal legal framework?  Despite a primary interest in artifact hunting since the 1990’s, he hasn’t bothered to think about models for future policy as far as I can tell.  I’d be interested to read them. 

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4 thoughts on “Buying Fake Antiquities (UPDATE)”

  1. I wonder why any collector would purchase looted artifacts as there is no guarantee that they are genuine, and great inducement for them to be fakes. Without a knowledge of their archaeological excavation there is also very limited knowledge of what they actually represent.

  2. Good post sir. Your position is much too reasonable and sane for the likes of Barford and his band of cultural property zealots. I gave up trying to engage with him at all since it’s an utter waste of time.

    Voz Earl

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