Statistics, Damned Statistics, and the Antiquities Trade. `

By Brodie, Neil | Antiquity, June 1999 | Go to article overview
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Statistics, Damned Statistics, and the Antiquities Trade. `


Brodie, Neil, Antiquity


It is difficult to put an accurate figure on the annual value of the illicit trade in antiquities. Estimates vary, from upwards of $1 billion (Elia 1995: 245) down to Eisenberg's (1995: 217) more conservative reckoning that the entire annual world-wide turnover in Classical, Egyptian and Near Eastern antiquities is in the range of $200300 million, a figure which presumably subsumes the value of the illicit trade. In the trade magazine Minerva (1998: 39) Peter Clayton has recently drawn attention to the summary statistics published in the annual reports of the United Kingdom's Reviewing Committee of Works of Art, which are derived from the licences issued by the Export Licensing Unit of what is now the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to permit the export of cultural (including archaeological) objects. Clayton has used the statistics presented in the Forty-third Report (1996-97) to argue that they '. . . very much belie the emotive statements in the press that would associate the sums in the antiquities trade with those of more nefarious activities, whose volume of trade is incomparably greater'. The amounts he quotes total [pounds]2,811,021. Unfortunately, a more rigorous examination of this Report suggests that Clayton might be guilty of a gross under-estimate. A figure in excess of [pounds]100 million would be nearer the mark.

TABLE 1. Total value in [pounds](000) of exports of cultural
material (Reviewing Committee 1995: 61; 1996: 57; 1997: 55).

total exports           exports outside the EC

1994-95 1,269,057       1,171,490 (92.3%)
1995-96 1,298,144       1,189,532 (91.6%)

At present there are two kinds of licence used to regulate the export of cultural material. In general a United Kingdom licence is required for despatches within the European Union while a European Community licence is required for exports to destinations outside the Union. The term 'cultural material' encompasses a diverse range of productions, from Old Masters to stuffed animals, and HM Customs and Excise data indicate that the majority of exports leave the European Union (TABLE 1). For clarity of presentation it will be assumed here that all exported antiquities are similarly directed, and thus subject to the presentation of an EC licence.

The procedure to be followed when applying for an export licence is shown in FIGURE 1, with the categories of material shown corresponding to those listed in paragraph 2 7 of the Forty-third Report (1997), reproduced here as TABLE 2. There are three independent categories in all, their total values recorded under entries (d), (g) and (k); each category receives separate consideration below.

(d) Items licensed after reference to expert advisers on the question of national importance

This category comprises objects from what is, in effect, the national heritage - material that has been in the United Kingdom for over 50 years. Appendix D of the Report (1997: 54) provides a breakdown of this category, and for 33 different classes of material gives the number of items licensed, together with their aggregate value. Ten of these classes would normally be considered as archaeological: archaeological material, coins and medals, Egyptian antiquities, ethnography, Greek and Roman antiquities; Japanese antiquities; British medieval and later antiquities; oriental antiquities (except Japanese); British prehistoric and Romano-British antiquities; Western Asiatic antiquities. This is the material referred to by Clayton and in 1996-97 its total value was [pounds]13,647,084, only a small fraction of the total value recorded for all exports.

a number of a applications for individual
export licences(1)                                              6756

b number of above applications which were
for manuscripts, documents or archives                          1275

c number of items licensed after reference
to expert advisers on the question of
national importance                                             7629

d total value of items in c                      [pounds]700,097,873

e number of Open Individual Licences issued
to regular exporters for the export of
manuscripts, documents, archives and
photographic positives and negatives                              19

f number of items licensed after the
Department of National Heritage was
satisfied of import into the UK within
the past 50 years                                               7728

g total value of items in f                    [pounds]1,598,485,313

h number of items in f which were
manuscripts, documents or archives                              1259

i total value of items in h                       [pounds]21,927,108

j number of items given an EC licence
without reference to the question of
national importance because they were
valued at below the appropriate UK
monetary limit                                                  2386

k total value of items in j                      [pounds]677,708,085

1 One application may cover several items. 

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