Antiquities, the Black Market, and Economists

A frieze from the Elgin MarblesSo, anyone else see this on Slate?

A quote:

“This trade is almost inevitable. In a poor country, such as Mali or Cambodia, foreigners are likely to be willing to pay more for artifacts than the locals would. The logic of the market would pull the choicest objects into foreign collections and foreign museums. Many see this as undesirable, and so most countries maintain some form of ban on trading antiquities.

But such bans have some unpleasant side effects. They replace the logic of the market with the logic of the black market, which means that smugglers would try to conceal the locations of new archaeological sites, to erase or forge the historical record surrounding objects, and to excavate and ship objects without the care that could be lavished on an operation that was legal. Beyond these purely archaeological considerations, illegal objects are less likely to end up in the top museums and may be relegated to purely private collections, which is in itself a shame. It’s enough to make an archaeologist weep—and an economist, too.

Michael Kremer, a Harvard economics professor with a track record of inventive ideas, and Tom Wilkening, a graduate student at MIT, published a possible solution earlier this year. Instead of flatly banning the export of antiquities, why not ban their sale but allow them to be rented?”


Anyone else wonder where the quotes from archaeologists are?

One thought on “Antiquities, the Black Market, and Economists

  1. OK, I’ve thought more about this, and what bothers me the most about this is the assumption that the traffic in antiquities is problematic because of economic concerns. That what would really fix it is for countries to be well-paid for all of their cool stuff. And especially the assumption that archaeology is all about the Cool Things We can Put in Museums.
    What the leasing solution would do is encourage countries to excavate their cool things and lease them, and to damn the archaeological context to the Might-Have-Been. It would NOT be a boon to World Archaeology. It would not advance knowledge about The Past. It would just result in More Cool Things in Museums.

    Pretty much not what we’re going for, here, guys.

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