Here’s a question that may never have been asked—or answered: What happens to the ancient artifacts that a government recovers from illegal excavations?

Say a government antiquities department catches a looter, someone who has been excavating illegally. It sometimes happens. The looter may go to jail, which is where he or she belongs. But what happens to the loot? Say the government finds a hoard of oil lamps or cooking pots. What happens to them after the government seizes and confiscates them?

Governments often seize contraband. If it is something like drugs, it is simply destroyed—flushed down the toilet. If it has value, say a shipment of sweaters on which customs has not been paid and the time for payment has expired, it is either given to a public agency (if it has use to the agency) or it is sold at public auction.

What are looted antiquities more like, illegal drugs or sweaters?

In the case of high-end antiquities, the answer is easy: They go to public museums where they can be studied and displayed.

But what about the pieces that are not of museum quality, the common pots and oil lamps, the coins with thousands of copies?

In theory they go into the storerooms of the antiquities authority—never to be heard from again. In fact, no one knows. Maybe they are stolen or destroyed or lost. Maybe a corrupt employee sells them and they end up on the antiquities market again.

I asked the Deputy Director of Israel’s Antiquities Authority if he knew, but he didn’t. One thing is sure, he said: They were not sold. Why not? He didn’t know. No one seems to know.

And the recoveries are far from negligible. The Italian government represented to an American court that between 1993 and 1997, it recovered over 120,000 items from illegal excavations. That’s enough to fill a dozen museums. Only a few of these items were of museum quality. Where did they go? Does anybody know?

Another question: Why not sell them and use the funds to bolster security at archaeological sites and catch more looters?