Market for antiquities.
- Erin Thompson
Arena in which artifacts from ancient cultures are obtained from archaeological sites and then bought and sold by dealers, museums, scholars, and private collectors. The market concentrates on artifacts regarded by buyers as artworks, including both objects created as art in antiquity, such as ancient Greek sculptures, and objects originally created for other uses which were re-categorized as artwork by modern buyers, such as Pre-Columbian funerary ceramics (see Collection and Display of Classical Art).
A market for these objects existed in antiquity, with the first collectors of ancient Greek art, and the trade in ancient objects in the Western world continued to focus primarily on artwork from Greece and Rome until the 19th century. Subsequently, increasing access to other areas of the world, the changing tastes of private collectors, and expanding conceptions of the role of museums led to interest in obtaining antiquities from other cultures. Recently, concerns about the looting of archaeological sites to obtain antiquities that appear in the legal market with forged paperwork (see Black market for art) have resulted in a reappraisal of the laws and practices of selling antiquities.
1. Before 1700.
Most ancient Greek masterpieces were created to decorate public buildings or were donations owned by religious sanctuaries. They were not available for sale, and thus their first collectors obtained them by other means. For example, the Hellenistic king Attalos I (reg 241–197 bce) purchased the entire Greek island of Aigina in 210 bce to take its artwork to decorate his capital, Pergamon. His son, Attalos II (reg 160–139 bce), was said to have inspired the Romans to begin collecting Greek art. When the Roman general Lucius Mummius was auctioning off the property his troops had looted during his conquest of Corinth in 146 bce, Attalos II bid 100 talents for a work by the Greek master painter Aristeides. Mummius was surprised that a painting, which his soldiers had been using as a dice table, could be so valuable, and withdrew it from the sale and instead dedicated it in the Temple of Ceres in Rome.
Many major artworks came to Rome as war booty from conquered territories. Generals usually dedicated some artworks to the gods, and divided the remainder among their soldiers as rewards. The soldiers then sold the artworks, making them available to the Roman public.
By the 1st century bce, during the late Republican period, Rome had a busy art market, complete with professional dealers, restorers, appraisers, and even forgers.
The market for antiquities disappeared almost entirely during the Christian era, when pagan artwork was suspected of containing demons. Only a few purchasers of the highest power and authority could avoid accusations of dealing with the occult when buying antiquities. For example, in the 12th century, Suger, Abbot of Saint-Denis, Paris, collected many ancient carved gems to decorate reliquaries and other church furnishings, while Henry of Blois, Bishop of Winchester and brother of the English King Stephen, bought ancient statues in Rome and sent them back to England, claiming that he did so in order to prevent the Romans from renewing their practice of worshipping such objects.
Even during the Renaissance, with its resurgence of interest in ancient art, there were few established dealers in antiquities, mostly because of a lack of supply. European hostilities with the Ottoman Turks, who controlled Greece, prevented Greek antiquities from reaching Europe. In Italy, archaeological excavations were still rare, and so Roman antiquities entered the market only irregularly, when found during construction or agricultural work or military altercations (war booty). Even then, due to their new value and prestige, antiquities were often exchanged as gifts between Italian aristocrats rather than being bought and sold on an open market.
The Renaissance also gave rise to one of the features of the antiquities market that persists to today: the existence of strict laws regulating and limiting the export of antiquities from the country in which they were discovered. These regulations arose in the Papal States in the 15th century, when excavations for new building projects in the city of Rome led to increasing discoveries of antiquities. Purchasers, including those from other Italian states, who wished to export antiquities needed papal permission, which was not always easily obtained, and had to pay heavy customs duties. The establishment of laws limiting the antiquities market was met by the invention of ways to circumvent these laws—another feature that continues to characterize the antiquities market (see also Art legislation, §2). For example, Isabella d’Este, who developed a substantial antiquities collection in Mantua in the early 16th century, instructed her agent to smuggle one purchase out of Rome by hiding it in a load of fish.
For those outside of Italy, purchasing antiquities before the 18th century was almost impossible. Political and religious differences made travel to Italy and Greece difficult, even during breaks from the frequent wars of the period. Antiquities were sometimes obtained through ambassadors or the use of skilled agents, but such purchases were rare. The collection formed by the Englishman Thomas Howard, 2nd Earl of Arundel, shows the lengths to which such purchasers had to go. In 1621 Arundel was granted the taxes levied on currants imported into England. His connections with the merchants who imported the dried fruits made him one of the few Western Europeans with political contacts in Greece and Asia Minor and the means of transporting antiquities purchased there. Arundel sent an agent, William Petty, who obtained around 200 Greek and Roman antiquities, mostly fragmentary, during a voyage to Greece and Turkey from 1624 to 1626. Petty had originally thought that buying antiquities would be easy, since they were not valued by the Ottoman authorities, but found that they were reluctant to grant permission to excavate and export them, suspicious that Petty was using the claim of a search for antiquities as a cover for digging up and stealing buried treasures. Petty was briefly imprisoned, accused of being a spy, but also took advantage of the imprisonment of the agent for a French scholar, Nicolas Peiresc, by purchasing a number of ancient inscriptions his competitor had collected from his jailers.
During the relative peace following the close of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, an increasing number of elite Europeans began to travel to Italy and Greece on what became known as the Grand Tour: a slow travel across the continent to mark the completion of their university education. So many of those making the Grand Tour purchased antiquities that the celebrated art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann once complained that “perhaps it will occur to some mad Englishman to have even Trajan’s Column transported to London.” British purchasers received many more export licenses from the Papal States than those of other nationalities. Strategic considerations may explain this preferential treatment, as the British maintained Europe’s most powerful navy.
By the second half of the 18th century, a small but active market for antiquities in Rome centered around the activities of four British antiquities dealers: Thomas Jenkins, Gavin Hamilton, Colin Morison, and Robert Fagan. They had originally moved to Italy to be artists, but found selling antiquities a more profitable career, since prices were high even though purchasers were relatively few. These dealers obtained antiquities by persuading Italian aristocrats to sell family collections as well as through conducting excavations (most notably, Hamilton’s excavations of Hadrian’s Villa at Tivoli from 1769 to 1771). They also frequently prepared antiquities for sale by supervising what was then seen as an indispensable process of restoration to prepare ancient sculpture for display. Restorers such as Bartolomeo Cavaceppi, whose work appears in almost all of the British Grand Tour collections, combined ancient fragments with newly carved stone, chemically stripping and mechanically polishing off most of the surviving original surface in order to produce a homogenous texture on each repaired statue. Letters between the dealers and their clients also show that among their most important functions were the securing of export permissions and the negotiation of reduced export duties by maneuvers that included bribing officials. Frequently the antiquities were simply smuggled out of Italy.
Similar black market activity was required to obtain coveted antiquities from the rediscovered Herculaneum (see Herculaneum, §VI) and Pompeii (see Pompeii, §VI), whose excavations were controlled by the Bourbon kings of Naples, who used the ancient artworks to decorate their palaces and to form a private museum. The court was protective of its prerogative, and sought to prevent the sale of works from the ancient cities to other collectors. In 1757, when it became clear that the cities contained many hundreds of frescoed panels more than the royal museum could accommodate, the court ordered the excavators to deface the remaining panels so that they could not be sold. The pressure of demand for such antiquities led to the growth of an industry of forged antiquities (see Forgery).
Americans were late entrants into the market for antiquities, in part because large-scale collections of antiquities were associated with the English elite against whom America had rebelled. The endurance of this prejudice meant that the first major American antiquities collections were formed not by individuals but by museums, especially the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, both founded in 1870, who shared missions of forming “universal” collections containing examples of artifacts from every culture. Distance and relative lack of expertise left American museums especially vulnerable to fraud, with the Metropolitan paying up to $40,000 for a series of forged Etruscan terracotta sculptures between 1915 and 1921. American museums, like European collectors, often attempted to lower or avoid Italian customs duties; Edward Perry Warren, an agent for the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, records strategies such as using removable paint to cover the signatures of Greek vases or plastering over the intact noses of Roman busts to make them look like badly repaired fragments.
The growth of American museum collections of antiquities, combined with the antiquities purchased by influential American collectors including William Randolph Hearst, J. Pierpont Morgan, and J. Paul Getty, founder of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, meant that by the mid-20th century America and Western Europe had become the leading markets for antiquities. This market comprised both specialized art dealers and auctions. As it became easier for both information and people to travel, the demand for antiquities expanded, as collectors sought antiquities from Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and South and Central America.
The growing demand for antiquities, along with a rise in patriotic feeling concurrent with the World Wars, led to a conviction in many source countries that their cultural heritage was being drained by foreigners. Many of these declared that all newly discovered antiquities, whether on private land or not, would belong to the state, and curtailed export licenses for privately owned antiquities. These new regulations did little to decrease the demand for antiquities, and much to drive this demand into black market channels. The continued demand for antiquities led to looting on a large scale, especially in Greek and Roman sites, Pre-Columbian burials and temples in South and Central America, ancient Chinese burials, and Native American sites in the USA. Since it remained legally permissible to sell an antiquity in America or Europe even if it had been excavated or exported contrary to the law of its source country, many of these looted antiquities appeared on the legal art market with either forged papers or simply no information about their archaeological site of origin or provenance.
3. After 1970.
The 1970 creation of an international treaty, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, signaled that market countries for antiquities had begun to recognize the seriousness of the destruction caused by antiquities looting. The Convention gave source countries a legal means to demand the Restitution of stolen antiquities. Meanwhile, a series of high-profile repatriation demands and criminal cases backed by proof of looting, led to the return of millions of dollars’ worth of antiquities to Italy, Greece, and Egypt from American museums, collectors, and dealers (see Restitution, §III). The combined effect led to a gradual establishment of policies requiring stricter scrutiny of the source of antiquities, with major auction houses now requiring proof of legal ownership and museums changing their acquisition policies to require information about an antiquity’s provenance.
Debates about the proper regulation of the antiquities market continue, with some advocating for more restrictions on the sales of antiquities without provenance information and others arguing that these artifacts most probably came from legal sources or that, even if looted, they will be lost to history if not purchased. Changes in political and economic climates have resulted in the opening of new markets for antiquities, such the one in China, which now seeks to repurchase antiquities acquired by foreign buyers in the 19th and 20th centuries. Recent conflicts destabilizing Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt, Syria, and other antiquities-rich areas have created new opportunities for looting. Perhaps the most important change has been the sharp rise in the number of small antiquities, such as coins or cylinder seals, sold by online retailers, which both democratize access to the antiquities market while also making it easy to buy and sell looted or forged antiquities.
- Haskell, Francis and Penny, Nicholas. Taste and the Antique: The Lure of Classical Sculpture, 1500–1900. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982.
- Walker, Kathryn and Tubb, Walker, eds. Antiquities: Trade or Betrayed: Legal, Ethical, and Conservation Issues. London: Archetype Publications, 1995.
- Dyson, Stephen L. Ancient Marbles to American Shores: Classical Archaeology in the United States. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998.
- Renfrew, Colin. Loot, Legitimacy, and Ownership: The Ethical Crisis in Archaeology. London: Duckworth, 2000.
- Scott, Jonathan. The Pleasures of Antiquity: British Collectors of Greece and Rome. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003.
- Cuno, James, ed. Whose Culture?: The Promise of Museums and the Debate over Antiquities. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009.
- Bignamini, Ilaria and Hornsby, Clare. Digging and Dealing in Eighteenth-Century Rome. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010.
- Christian, Kathleen. Empire without End: Antiquities Collections in Renaissance Rome, c. 1350–1527. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010.
- Felch, Jason and Frammolino, Ralph. Chasing Aphrodite: The Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World’s Richest Museum. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011.
- Manacorda, Stefano and Chappell, Duncan, eds. Crime in the Art and Antiquities World: Illegal Trafficking in Cultural Property. New York: Springer, 2011.
- Rutledge, Steven H. Ancient Rome as a Museum: Power, Identity, and the Culture of Collecting. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.
- Thompson, Erin L. Possession: The Curious History of Private Collectors from Antiquity to the Present. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2016.