March 4th, 2013

The Conservator’s Role in the Illicit Antiquities Trade

Lucas Simmonds

                When discussing the ethics of archaeological conservation, one topic that often finds its way to the forefront is the conservation of irresponsibly or illegally recovered artifacts. The complexities of this issue have been summed up well by Catherine Sease, a conservator who has been involved in court cases dealing with illegally recovered artifacts from Cyprus. Arguing vehemently against the damages that are caused by the illegal antiquities trade and those involved with it, intentionally or not, Sease contends that any reputable conservator must have nothing to do with objects of any questionable provenance, illegal or not (Sease, 1997). Rejecting any notion that the information gained from conserving an illegally recovered or unprovenanced artifact is still valuable, she writes that, “it is better to lose some data than to actively contribute to the wanton destruction of the archaeological record” (Sease, 1997: 56).

                While arguments such as that made by Sease are most certainly noble in their conception, they represent a fundamentally flawed view of the causes of the illegal antiquities trade and the ways in which it can and should be combatted. Of course, in a perfect world, when every conservator stopped treating illegally recovered artifacts, the trade would grind to a halt. Unfortunately, however, in reality, there are, and will always be, “black market” conservators who will pick up the slack. Much like the trade in ivory, drugs, and other illegal commodities,  the market is created and driven by the illegal status placed on those commodities, and the actions of those as high up on the supply chain as conservators, will have little effect on the market as a whole. A conservator boldly taking a stand by not treating illegally recovered artifacts is analogous to a doctor refusing to treat a patient who has overdosed on an illegal substance, while it may be noble in concept, taking a stand against the illegal market itself, it only hurts the object whose treatment has been refused. If real change is to be affected on the illegal antiquities market and the illegal recovery of antiquities, the demand for antiquities must be met by a legal and regulated market based on ethical archaeological principals.

                For all of the archaeological community’s talk about the value of artifacts and the need to excavate them properly, the fact remains that most artifacts, after documentation, are either returned to a storage location on site, or are put into long term storage, never to be seen again. At a time when both concerns of storage space and an illegal antiquities market are raging, the solution would appear to be quite simple. The regulated sale of artifacts from storage would serve both to alleviate storage concerns, as well as cutting into the market of illegally recovered antiquities. A system whereby registered artifacts are sold through licensed dealers, in combination with a system for tracking the ownership of artifacts after their sale, would profit museums and archaeological administrations, while still keeping track of the artifacts whereabouts so that further study could be conducted when needed. In an extreme example, GPS trackers could be inconspicuously attached to artifacts offered for sale so that they may be tracked at all times after the sale.

                While this paper does not claim to present a comprehensive plan for such a system, I would nevertheless resolve that it is only through a regulated and legal antiquities market that the problem of the illegal and irresponsible recovery and sale of artifacts can be finally solved. Much like the illegal alcohol market has all but disappeared since the lifting of prohibition, so could such a controlled system for the sale of antiquities phase out the illegal antiquities market. While conservators will still have to wrestle with such ethical dilemmas as outlined by Sease as long as an illegal antiquities market exists, they should also recognize that in refusing to treat illegally or irresponsibly recovered artifacts they may be taking the moral high ground, but they are not moving any closer to a solution to the problem of antiquities trafficking.

 Sease, Catherine. 1997. Conservation and the Antiquities Trade. Journal of the American Institute for Conservation 36 (1): 49-58.

General Conservation

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