Can antiquities leasing form a good compromise between strict regulation, which can be counterproductive, and the cultural property trade? Tim Harford has an interesting article in Slate today, Rent-A-Treasure: How to Eliminate the Black Market in Stolen Antiquities. He talks more about the working paper Antiquities: Long-Term Leases as an Alternative to Export Bans, co-authored by Michael Kremer and Tom Wilkening. Kremer and Wilkening take an economic perspective and argue antiquities leasing is a better alternative to the current rigid regulation which ends up fostering a black market.
Leasing is an exciting idea as I’ve argued before; but not in every case. The Slate article does a good job of painting the problem in broad strokes, and traces the idea to the antiquities controversy which is probably the most widely known, the Parthenon Marbles. Some kind of sharing agreement between the British Museum and Greece might work in theory, but neither side would be willing to undergo such a compromise in my view. A better use of leasing would be in developing source nations in response to the illicit trade of today, not long-standing repatriation disputes. Source nation antiquities leasing could produce revenue, foster international appreciation, all while objects are still under the control of the source nation
The first mention of the idea, that I am aware, came in 1993 by Nusin Asgari. The former head of the Antiquities Museum in Istanbul, Turkey, argued that ten-year loan agreements between major museums might reduce the temptation to acquire antiquities illicitly. (Suna Erdem, New Trojan War Highlights Pillage of Turkey’s Past, Reuters, Oct. 13, 1993, available in LEXIS, News Library, Curnws File).
There are a few versions of this idea in practice, including the blockbuster King Tut exhibition, which I would venture to say was more about showing off the gold than anything else, and that seemed to be Tyler Cowen’s take as well.
But a far better example is the Menil Collection Byzantine Fresco Chapel Museum in Houston, pictured here. The frescoes were stolen during the Turkish occupation of Cyprus in the 1980’s. With the permission of the Church of Cyprus, the Menil Foundation agreed to a long-term lease and restoration. This is a far better example than the King Tut exhibition, which seemed far more concerned with earning revenue than education or conisseurship. I haven’t seen the chapel in Houston, but the final product looks stunning. It’s an example of what the antiquities market can and should produce, and everyone wins.
There was also a great deal of uproar over Lynne Munson’s criticism over the National Geographic Society’s deal with Afghanistan to display the Bactrian gold, which I talked about here. Are folks aware of other good, or bad antiquities leasing schemes? I’d be very interested to know, if you would care to share them in the comments section.