Sunday, November 09, 2008

Loot versus Looting

The always astute Hugh Eakin concludes his review of Sharon Waxman's newly released Loot: The Battle Over the Stolen Treasures of the Ancient World, by noting that restitution is a sideshow that distracts from the real and pressing issue, which is the looting of archaeological sites:
The larger problem is Waxman's portrayal of the antiquities crisis as mainly a "tug of war" over coveted museum pieces. In fact, the more important battle concerns unprotected archaeological sites, and it is far less a matter of repatriating objects than of figuring out how to stop latter-day looters from destroying our collective past. That vital challenge remains unsolved.
All of us who care about our collective past ought to be focusing now on generating and promoting realistic policy and legal measures that will reduce looting of sites in the most cost-effective way. I have suggested a few such solutions (impose a modest tax on antiquities sales with revenues dedicated to funding site protection in the countries or regions of origin; jawbone wealthy collectors to fund a non-profit foundation to develop low-cost anti-looting technologies and shunt assistance to those countries facing the most pressing difficulties; persuade countries, with the US leading the way, to contribute to the UNESCO fund dealing with the problem). Others have suggested market-based mechanisms that would incentivize site protection; public-spirited initiatives to spur cities, universities, or even facebook members to adopt particular archaeological sites; and, of course, cultural-sensitivity campaigns designed to tamp down on the demand side of the antiquities market by demonizing collecting as akin to buying baby seal fur.

With a new president -- from the University of Chicago, my home institution -- about to take office, there is a real opportunity to move forward. What we need now is a robust discussion where all these options and others are put on the table, critiqued, and refined.

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