Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Another Collector Calls for Registering Antiquities -- and Taxing Them (just not here, though!)

Peter Aldrich refloats a proposal made some time ago for a series of steps he thinks would help curb antiquities looting.

The solution is unrealistic, and unnecessarily so. No country where looting is going on now is going to change its laws to make it even easier than it is now for foreigners to deplete the countries unexcavated sites. But with a little tweaking, parts of the plan would do a lot of good. So instead of asking the world to do what it clearly is not ready to, why not just get together now with other antiquities collectors and dealers here in the US and show the world what good could be done for them? Legislators could be told that collectors, museums, dealers and auction houses all want a registry established here that antiquities would have to pass through to be saleable (a fee would be charged to have their antiquities vetted to cover the cost of that, and to cover the costs of policing the industry to ensure compliance as well). Legislators would also be told that collectors, dealers, museums, and auction houses all want to see a tax on all antiquities purchases here –including purchases made overseas of items brought into the US -- but only if tax revenues are put into an anti-looting Superfund that would support more site guards and other anti-looting measures there in poor countries where looting is worst.

Yes, the US would be putting ourselves at a competitive disadvantage in the short run for unprovenanced antiquities, but that would be more than compensated by the goodwill the collecting community would garner from countries of origin — goodwill that could be built on in lots of ways impossible now, given the animosity caused by perceived indifference towards the harm that the demand for antiquities is doing.


bob said...

How does registering antiquities already here in the US with the US government help citizens in countries that deny personal property rights? I thought the point of registering items from the article was to curtail looting by a populace that has little or no faith in its government (rightfully so as those governments are authoritarian or extremely corrupt).

As a country that is based on freedom (one of the biggest being personal property rights), should we not be putting pressure on countries that deny their citizens such? If citizens and property owners were allowed to contract with archaeologists to safely excavate finds, it would most certainly increase the security surrounding the site and benefit many rather than just a corrupt few.

Where citizens receive no compensation for items found on their property or the community at large does not share in the rewards of the source material while corrupt gov't officials and their friends make money either legitimately selling objects or selling objects while corrupt gov't officials turn a blind eye, it should not be the responsibility of the United States to enforce the inequitable laws of corrupt nations.

Larry Rothfield said...

The aim of policy here is not to help citizens make money here or elsewhere by giving them rights, but (in this case) to protect unexcavated archaeological sites from being dug up by people who do not do so in an archaeologically-controlled way. Registering antiquities here can help that purpose.

The problem with the assumption that giving citizens the right to contract with archaeologists would increase security is that the same corrupt government you complain about would have to somehow magically develop the non-corrupt capacity to monitor these contracts and vouch for the professional qualifications of archaeologists. Yes, some sites might get more security, but the likelihood is that what now is called looting will just become industrialized under the cloak of "archaeological excavation." That's not what we want to see happen. But the point is moot anyway, since no country is going to respond positively to our pressuring them to change their laws so that we can buy more of their antiquities, antiquities they see being looted and then showing up here.

Your last paragraph is a recipe for allowing the looting to continue while we stand on principle. I am arguing that we can and should be looking for pragmatic ways to help secure unexcavated sites from being excavated by non-professionals. One way is to register antiquities here so that it becomes more difficult for looted antiquities to be sold here and so that we can tax the sale of licit antiquities to generate funds to help curtail looting.

The fallacy in your argument is that not all laws even of corrupt governments are bad. Laws that make it illegal for armed diggers to swarm onto archaeological sites and drive off the guards so they can dig with impunity are good laws, not inequitable ones, and it is in our interest (because we do not want to lose the information about the past that is destroyed by these diggers) to prevent violations of those laws.