Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Too Many Antiquities Seizures in Turkey For the Museum to Handle

According to this article, Turkey's antiquities police have been very busy, confiscating more than 68,000 artifacts from nearly 5,000 smugglers in the last year alone. That shows that: a) Turkey is devoting substantial resources to fighting the looting of antiquities from its territory; b) demand for unprovenanced classical-Greek-era antiquities remains virulent, despite the changes in policy by museums. This is not to downplay the value of museums adopting a clean-hands approach, but one thing should be clear: the private market, not the museum sector is the driver of antiquities looting, and that the private market is in dire need of regulation to control, reduce, and exploit the demand in ways that would serve to prevent further looting in the future.

Beyond that, the article notes that all this policing has created a problem in turn: the Archaeological Museum is facing increasing difficulty in dealing with the influx of looted materials, 25,000 and counting piling up. (Imagine how many would be piling up if there were a Portable Antiquities Scheme!)

Turkey's policy requires the museum’s management to care for seized artifacts, the article notes, "until the investigation is completed, at which time either the piece will be released, permanently added to the museum’s official collection, or sold to a collector via an auction." Presumably only in-country collectors would be allowed to buy, though I am not sure of this, nor of whether funds raised from the sales are devoted to help defray the museum's costs to some extent. Any readers have better knowledge of this to share?

One other issue the article leaves unaddressed is whether the seizures are being made on sites, at the border, or in-country. The extraordinarily high number of artifacts being seized may indicate that the Turkish approach is focusing scarce policing resources on confiscation rather than on site protection. Both are needed, but it is far more important, from an archaeological viewpoint, to keep sites from being looted than to keep looted artifacts from leaving the country -- especially if the policy is to eventually sell those looted artifacts to collectors.

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