Buy Back the Looted Artifacts

R. A. Hettinga rah at
Wed Apr 16 12:04:31 PDT 2003

Even better, leave them on the open market. :-).



The Wall Street Journal

April 16, 2003 


Buy Back the Looted Artifacts 


Baghdad's museums, deplorably, have been looted. Determining the extent of the loss and assessing blame will take months, if not years. But there is an immediate question for the archaeological establishment to face: What to do now? Do we try to rescue what is left? Or do we simply write off the whole thing as a total loss? 

My solution: Buy back the looted artifacts. 

* * * 

The archaeological establishment, represented primarily by the leadership of the Archeological Institute of America (AIA), condemns the sale of all antiquities, vilifying collectors and suggesting that antiquities dealers are simply middlemen between looters and immoral collectors -- the latter including the Metropolitan Museum in New York and Boston's Museum of Fine Arts. The idea of rescuing a looted artifact by purchasing it is anathema to the AIA. 

There was some destruction in Baghdad and elsewhere for destruction's sake -- senseless, pointless. But most of the looting was undoubtedly purposeful -- to obtain valuables that could be sold. Many of the pieces will have been damaged (beyond what occurred in antiquity), but still they are valuable, in some cases immensely so, on the black market. Of one thing we may be sure: Most of the looted objects will eventually find their way to the market. 

Will these pieces go to collectors who will secrete them for private pleasure? Or should the public attempt to influence or participate in the market in an effort to rescue the pieces for public institutions, including, perhaps one day, the National Museum of Antiquities in Baghdad? 

The more hands through which these treasures pass, the higher the price will be and the more difficult they will be to locate. The time to buy, if that is what we are going to do, is now, or as soon as things quiet down. Just as we are trying to enlist former Iraqi civil servants and constabulary, we could plug into the network of international middlemen who deal in antiquities in the Middle East, including those who handled stolen artifacts in the period after the Gulf War. 

Since there is no good solution, we must look for the least bad one. Dealing with this unsavory market may be better than a complete loss of these treasures. Until now, the AIA's solution has been utopian: If there were no collectors and no antiquities dealers (as a result of their campaigns), there would be no demand for looted artifacts, so the looters would have no incentive to loot and would therefore stop looting. 

But many prominent archeology scholars are accustomed to dealing in the antiquities market, despite the condemnation of the AIA. Most of the Dead Sea Scrolls were rescued by purchase. All scholars who deal in ancient inscriptions work with artifacts that come from the antiquities market. The same for numismatists; over 90% of ancient coins come from the antiquities market. 

It is critical in this crisis that the archaeological community -- including museums, philanthropists, collectors, scholars, and representatives of the AIA -- meet to formulate a policy on whether some attempt should be made to retrieve what is left, and, if so, how. The news reports naturally emphasize the destruction -- and it is doubtless vast. But it is also true that there will be much that can be rescued -- thanks to the profit motive. Amidst the tragedy, we must look to the future. 

Mr. Shanks is the editor the Biblical Archaeology Review and Archeology Odyssey. 
R. A. Hettinga <mailto: rah at>
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