But at-least for Indian antiquities, the 1969/70 cut-off is no holy grail. There are other legal provisions for ensuring the return of smuggled artifacts. These include the Antiquities and Art Treasures Act, 1972 which can be read in addition to Ancient Monuments Preservation Act, 1904, the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act, 1958 or even the Indian Treasure Trove Act of 1878.
So long as museums continue to spend money to acquire even well-provenanced antiquities, they will be signaling that antiquities are worth a lot of money whether well-provenanced or not. That in turn will drive continued circulation of recently-looted artifacts for less-fastidious collectors around the world. Museums should certainly make provenance info about objects acquired from dealers who have been arrested, they need to do much more than that if they want to make a real difference. To begin with, all provenance information about all artifacts that museums consider acquiring — not just about artifacts sold by arrested dealers, not just about artifacts acquired, but also artifacts looked at and refused because the provenance looked dodgy — should be made available for researchers and to the police. Beyond that, museums should shift themselves, and encourage collectors to shift, away from purchasing antiquities so as to reduce demand, and museums should think of ways in which they might generate financial support to help pay for more site guards. One way would be for museums to take out of storerooms and lease out artifacts that collectors would gladly pay to temporarily display (like the Palmyra sculpture the Boston MFA showed for the first time in decades to honor the decapitated Palmyra site director). Another way would be for museums to push collectors and dealers to join them to support the imposition of a tax on antiquities sales, with the revenues dedicated to funding better and more site protection and policing of the illicit trade.
The looting and illicit export of art treasures is not a new problem. It’s happened whenever there have been armed conflicts during which victorious troops plundered churches, temples and other buildings. Germany carried out massive looting in World War II. By the start of the 21st Century the trade in illicit antiquities had become so huge it was worth billions of dollars each year and was the biggest international crime outside drug and arms trafficking according to The New York Times. When a piece is stolen, the consequence for scholars is tragic, because essential information about the piece – where it was found, what else was with it – is lost forever.
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