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An Ethical Dilemma of Artifacts for Sale

March 19th, 2014

An Ethical Dilemma of Artifacts for Sale

Michell Gilman

            The selling and trade of artworks and artifacts is a highly inflaming topic amongst those in the fields of archaeology and conservation, and others committed to the preservation of their cultural history.  On the other side, there are those who believe there is nothing wrong with gaining profit from the sale of antiquities, and there are situations  where priceless artworks and antiquities are in danger of being auctioned. Aside from the illegal trade of antiquities, what are the ramifications of the legal selling of these items?  As archaeologists and conservators, where does our responsibility lie?

One interesting case study is with the city of Detroit which is facing bankruptcy and contemplating selling artwork housed at the Detroit Institute of Art (DIA) to pay its creditors. Media in the headlines (USA Today) report that the city of Detroit has been granted the option to file bankruptcy and their creditors and many in the general public have suggested that the city-owned DIA sell its precious artworks to offset the city’s debts of approximately $18 billion.  This is an example that illustrates the consequences of public-owned museums and why it is so important that artworks and other antiquities be housed in institutions funded by private foundations committed to their conservation, preservation, curation, display, and storage.  Media reports (USA Today) state the artworks in concern are city-purchased and represent about 5% of museum’s art collection, and have been appraised by Christie’s Auction House at $454 to $867 million.  There is a long process before it can be determined whether the artworks can be auctioned. Should the outcome be that even some of the art is eligible be sold, the impact could reach well beyond Detroit; this could potentially affect current and future donors’ decisions concerning donations to museums and other institutions that house antiquities.  A remedy for this potential outcome could be that there would be parameters set as to who could be eligible to purchase the objects such as other museums.

More recently, media in the headlines (San Francisco Chronicle) report a couple in the state of California discovered tin cans filled with 19th century $20, $10, and $5 US gold coins on their property.  According to news reports (San Francisco Chronicle) the couple plans to keep a few of the coins, help the homeless in their community, and auction the majority of the hoard.  It is unknown as to who buried the coins and why they did it.  Understandably, the couple did not know what they were digging up when they saw something sticking up from the ground, however their retrieval took them out of context and a part of their cultural history is lost.  The numismatic value of these coins far outweighs their metal value; they are rare and in excellent condition.  To be clear, the couple is well within their legal rights to do whatever they want with the coins as they were found on their private property.  The concern here is a situation where people find prehistoric and historic cultural materials on their property and exercise their right to sell them — how is this different than say private for-profit companies who conduct archaeological excavations with the intent of  documenting and then selling their find?  This question is not intended to be answered with a simple explanation, but instead to stimulate critical thought on this issue.  It is not known whether there exists a historical archaeological site in the area where the coins were discovered.  Should a survey have been done to determine historical significance?  Current laws protect sites on federal lands and most state laws do not concern finds discovered on private lands unless they are human remains or burial goods of Native American ancestors.  In this case, the couple is not obligated to have their property surveyed.   Not all of the historical value of the coins has been lost because they can be placed into historical context of when they were minted (it should be noted that these are uncirculated coins) and represent a part of the socio-economic system of their time.

These are only two of many situations that contribute to the antiquities trade.  Although legal, they do have the potential to impact illegal activities.  As professionals in the archaeological and conservation fields, we do not have a legal obligation to be involved with these kinds of activities, but we do have ethical considerations and are expected to follow ethical codes of conduct such as those set by the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Work (AIC) and the Society for American Archaeology (SAA).  While we are not usually required to be involved in private, legal activities in the sale of artifacts and works of art, we are still expected to be stewards and advocates for the protection, conservation, and preservation of cultural objects and sites.  We are not obligated to involve ourselves in these specific situations, but we do have a responsibility to educate others about the important role cultural materials have in connecting people to their cultural past.  Furthermore, as the disciplines of archaeology and conservation change, so does our framework of thinking.  This does not suggest that there be no legislature in place to protect antiquities, but that the discussion should be ongoing.

A reality for archaeologists and museum curators is the fact that space for storing artifacts is limited.  In fact, there are many cultural materials that have been excavated, but not curated and will likely never be analyzed.  Some might argue that in cases where there is an abundance of a particular kind of object, as in the case of the gold coins, some be kept for full curation and display, and the rest be sold.  This is a sensitive topic and one that will never be fully resolved, but as previously mentioned, the discussion must be an ongoing one as the disciplines of archaeology and conservation adapt to changes and situations.  One of the best tools we possess is the ability to educate those outside the disciplines about the significance of cultural materials and our connection to the past.

 

Resources

Borney, Nathan, and Mark Stryker 2014  Judge says no to 1st step toward selling Detroit’s art.  USA Today. January 22.  http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2014/01/22/detroit-bankruptcy-institute-of-arts/4771613/.  Retrieved on February 26, 2014.

 

Fagan, Kevin 2014   Gold Country couple discover $10 million in gold coins.  San Francisco Chronicle.  February 26. http://www.sfgate.com/news/article/Gold-Country-couple-discover-10-million-in-5266314.php.  Retrieved on February 26, 2014.

 

National Parks Service 2004   AIC Code of Ethics and Guidelines for Practice. http://www.nps.gov/training/tel/Guides/HPS1022_AIC_Code_of_Ethics.pdf. Retrieved on February 26, 2014.

 

Society for American Archaeology 1996   Principles of Archaeological ethics. http://www.saa.org/AbouttheSociety/PrinciplesofArchaeologicalEthics/tabid/203/Default.aspx.  Retrieved on February 26, 2014.

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