Ancient Treasures for Sale: Do Antique Dealers Preserve the Past or Steal It?

Article excerpt

As YOU READ THIS, criminals somewhere in the world are destroying portions of mankind's past. With backhoe and shovel, chainsaw and crowbar, they are wrenching priceless objects from sites in the mountains of Peru, the coasts of Sicily, and the deserts of Iraq. Brutal and uncaring, these robbers leave behind a wake of decapitated statues, mutilated temples, and pillaged trenches where archaeologists were seeking clues to little-understood civilizations. The results of this looting include disfigured architectural monuments, vanished aesthetic objects, and an incalculable loss of information about the past. And it shows no signs of diminishing.

As you continue to read, other people across the globe are purchasing some of mankind's oldest and most exquisite creations. Contemplating ancient statues, vases, and stelae, many of these purchasers experience antiquities' near-mystical power to connect them to the past or to transcend time through beauty. Proud of their efforts, these private collectors, commercial dealers, and museum curators view themselves as temporary caretakers of timeless treasures. Their love for these artifacts often resembles the passion one associates with religious fervor. It, too, shows no signs of diminishing.

At first glance, the connection between those who loot antiquities and those who collect, trade, and preserve them seems the stuff of academic seminars and journals. Yet such is the allure of ancient treasures that, since the 1970s, this relationship has spawned global treaties, inflamed Third World nationalism, created a secretive Washington bureaucracy, and triggered federal prosecutions. To some, this international cooperation reflects the ability of the world's nations to unite to protect an endangered world resource. To others, it demonstrates the hazards resulting when "feel-good" multinationalism collides not only with the sovereignty of the United States but with the basic human desire to surround oneself with objects of beauty.

"We have a situation in this country today where American citizens pursue their legal rights under the shadow of prosecution by foreign laws, and private and public collections of antiquities are at risk to the demands of cultural ministers in other countries," says New York lawyer William Pearlstein. "The antiquities situation is a mess," echoes Kate Fitz Gibbon, a Santa Fe dealer in Central Asian artifacts. "We're heading for a major crisis in the near future."

Artifactual Dispute

It's been a decade since I first wrote about "cultural patrimony," the question of who has the right to own and exhibit mankind's aesthetic and archaeological treasures. At the time, stories were proliferating about looters plundering the temples of Cambodia's Angkor Wat and the tombs of Mali's Niger River delta. Archaeologists were still buzzing about the Metropolitan Museum's 1993 repatriation to Istanbul of the so-called "Lydian Horde" of gold objects, which smugglers had illegally excavated from Turkey and sold to the museum. I found the topic abstruse, filled with mind-numbing legal documents and visually stunning artifacts. All I knew for sure was that collector demand for these objects created incentives for looters to pillage archaeological sites in Third World countries. End the international antiquity trade, I thought, and the looting in those "source" nations would stop.

In the late 1990s, though, my investigations brought me to an urbane but down-to-earth antiquities dealer named Frederick Schultz. In his 57th Street gallery, filled with vitrines displaying relics of Chinese, Etruscan, and other ancient civilizations, the boyish Schultz explained the viewpoint championed by the "trade." Looting is indeed a problem, he conceded, but critics of dealers were wrong. The international antiquities market--together with the private and public collections it supplies--preserves ancient treasures and disseminates their beauty and influence across the globe. …