This is not the “Antiques Roadshow”

Are you looking for information on ancient artifacts that you own? Read this:

        "It is inappropriate for a scholar to authenticate or document an unprovenanced antiquity in such a way as may facilitate its subsequent sale"  --Colin Renfrew, Loot, Legitimacy and Ownership, p. 75.

By law all antiquities from Mexico belong to the Mexican government and it is illegal to sell them or to export them out of Mexico. It is also illegal to excavate archaeological sites without the permission of the Mexican government's National Institute of Anthropology and History, even if the sites are on private land. Most artifacts for sale in the U.S. today were excavated illegally (i.e., they were looted), and most entered the U.S. illegally.

Artifacts that are found by individuals and kept privately are lost to scholarship, since scholars do not know about them. Even when collectors let experts look at their collections, the scholarly value is usually very low because the objects were removed from their sites of origin without proper excavation methods and without documenting their location, depth, context, etc. Most archaeologists, myself included, refuse to provide estimates of value or to provide formal scholarly opinions on objects in private collections because this can encourage the looting of sites and the illicit trade in ancient art.

When artifacts are excavated by archaeologists, they provide new information on the ancient cultures of the area. That information is made available to a wide audience of both professionals and the general public. The objects are typically displayed in a museum (near the site or in another city in the country where they were excavated) for the public to see and for scholars to study. The ancient peoples of Mexico were the ancestors of modern Mexicans, and knowledge of their accomplishments enriches our understanding of Mexican history and is a source of pride to all Mexicans. When ancient objects are excavated by private individuals for their own enjoyment or for sale, and when such objects are sold on the illegal antiquities market, the public is robbed of information and enjoyment, the scholarly community is robbed of information, and only a few people benefit. The commercial market in Mexican antiquities robs the Mexican people of their heritage and harms scholarship.

For these reasons I will not provide commercial valuations of artifacts. I will sometimes provide an opinion on the age, affiliation, or significance of artifacts, but only in cases where it can be shown that they have been obtained legally and are being held legally today.

Some Links on Looting and Antiquities

 The Looting Question Bibliography

 Looting Matters! The Material and Intellectual Consequences of Collecting Antiquities

 Sources of Information on Antiquities Theft

From the “Principles of Archaeological Ethics” of the Society for American Archaeology:

"Principle No. 3: Commercialization.  The Society for American Archaeology has long recognized that the buying and selling of objects out of archaeological context is contributing to the destruction of the archaeological record on the American continents and around the world. The commercialization of archaeological objects—their use as commodities to be exploited for personal enjoyment or profit—results in the destruction of archaeological sites and of contextual information that is essential to understanding the archaeological record. Archaeologists should therefore carefully weigh the benefits to scholarship of a project against the costs of potentially enhancing the commercial value of archaeological objects. Whenever possible they should discourage, and should themselves avoid, activities that enhance the commercial value of archaeological objects, especially objects that are not curated in public institutions, or readily available for scientific study, public interpretation, and display.”

Click here for the full document, “Principles of Archaeological Ethics

Copy of a Letter I wrote to Newsweek Magazine (which they did not publish):

April 23, 2003
To the Editor:

The fact that looted artifacts from Iraq are now being sold to the highest bidder on eBay points out a glaring omission in your cover story on the internet auction house last summer ("The eBay Way of Life," Newsweek, June 17, 2003). eBay and other internet auction sites regularly sell looted artifacts — from Sumerian vases stolen from the Baghdad Museum to Mayan sculptures looted from ruins in Mexico to Civil War gravestones robbed from U.S. cemeteries. These sales increase the commercial value of such stolen art, and thus stimulate further looting. This contributes to the ongoing destruction of archaeological sites, graveyards, and other historical properties around the world. eBay claims it is doing nothing illegal because it is difficult to "prove" that these objects were stolen. Nevertheless, the sale of such items promotes vandalism, theft, and destruction of the historical past.

Dr. Michael E. Smith

Readings on Looting and the Market in Ancient Antiquities:

Atwood, Roger
2004 Stealing History: Tomb Raiders, Smugglers, and the Looting of the Ancient World. St. Martin's Press, New York.

Brodie, Neil, Jennifer Doole,  and Colin Renfrew (editors)
    2001    Trade in Illicit Antiquities: The Destruction of the World's Archaeological Heritage. McDonald Institute Monographs. McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, Cambridge.

Brodie, Neil, Jenny Doole,  and Peter Watson (editors)
    2000    Stealing History: The Illicit Trade in Cultural Material. McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, Cambridge.

Brodie, Neil, and Colin Renfrew
2005 Looting and the World's Archaeological Heritage: The Inadequate Response. Annual Review of Anthropology 34:343-361.

Brodie, Neil,  and Kathryn Walker Tubb (editors)
    2002    Illicit Antiquities: The Theft of Culture and the Extinction of Archaeology. Routledge, New York.

Bruhns, Karen Olsen
    2000 SAA Bulletin 18(2):14-15, 17.

Kirkpatrick, Sidney D.
    1992    Lords of Sipan: A Tale of Pre-Inca Tombs, Archaeology, and Crime. William Morrow, New York.

Lawler, Andrew
    2001    Destruction in Mesopotamia. Science 293:32-41.

Layton, Robert, Peter G. Stone, and Julian Thomas (editors)
2001 Destruction and Conservation of Cultural Property. Routledge, London.

Luke, Christina, and Morag Kersel
2005 The Antiquities Market: A Retrospective and a Look Forward. Journal of Field Archaeology 30:191-200.

Lynott, Mark J.,  and Alison Wylie (editors)
    2000    Ethics in American Archaeology. 2nd ed. Society for American Archaeology, Washington, DC.

Messenger, Phyllis Mauch (editor)
    1999    The Ethics of Collecting Cultural Property: Whose Culture? Whose Property? 2nd ed. University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque.

Nalda, Enrique
2002 Mexico's Archaeological Heritage: A Convergence and Confrontation of Interests. In Illicit Antiquities: The Theft of Culture and the Extinction of Archaeology, edited by Neil Brodie, and Kathryn Walker Tubb, pp. 205-227. Routledge, New York.

Reents-Budet, Dorie
    1994    Collecting Pre-Columbian Art and Preserving the Archaeological Record. In Painting the Maya Universe: Royal Ceramics of the Classic Period, edited by Dorie Reents-Budet, pp. 290-309. Duke University Press, Durham, NC.

Renfrew, Colin
    1993    Collectors are the Real Looters. Archaeology 46(3):16-17.

    2000    Loot, Legitimacy and Ownership: The Ethical Crisis in Archaeology. Duckworth, London.

Russell, John Malcolm
    1998    The Final Sack of Nineveh: The Discovery, Documentation and Destruction of King Sennecherib's Throne Room at Nineveh, Iraq. Yale University Press, New Haven.

Wylie, Alison
    1996    Ethical Dilemmas in Archaeological Practice: Looting, Repatriation, Stewardship, and the (Trans)formation of Disciplinary Identity. Perspectives on Science 4:154-194.

This page was produced by Dr. Michael E. Smith, Professor of Anthropology, Arizona State University.

 Michael E. Smith's home page.

© 2006, Michael E. Smith (revised 3/8/06)