In Editor’s Page, AO 05:04, editor Hershel Shanks wrote an open letter on archaeological looting to the distinguished British archaeologist Colin Renfrew of Cambridge University. Lord Renfrew graciously responded, saying that he would welcome such a discussion. His reply is printed below. In the next issue of Archaeology Odyssey, Shanks will reply to Renfrew.

Dear Mr. Shanks,

Thank you very much for your review, in the form of an open letter, of my book Loot, Legitimacy and Ownership: The Ethical Crisis in Archaeology (London: Duckworth, 2000).

In Loot my aim was to demonstrate two things:

(1) That the greatest threat to the world’s archaeological heritage today, and the greatest obstacle to our learning more about the early human past, is the deliberate looting of archaeological sites to produce antiquities to sell on the market;

(2) That this market is sustained and promoted by private collectors and museums who are willing to buy unprovenanced antiquities from those antiquities dealers who traffic in illicit materials, sometimes without realizing that their money is financing, directly or indirectly, the actual looting process.

In your lively and good-natured review you make several interesting points—the risk of driving the market underground, the failure of national governments to take the necessary steps to protect their own heritage, the importance of rescuing unique materials like the Dead Sea Scrolls for international scholarship—and you argue for “market-based solutions.” You kindly say that I “sound like a very reasonable fellow” and suggest that “we might engage in a reasonable, if perhaps impassioned, exchange.” I am happy to accept your welcome invitation.

I will try briefly to address some of the interesting points you make. But first let me be candid regarding your well-intentioned question: “Can you believe that I abhor looters as much as you do?” I think you fail to recognize the damage done by prominent museums in paying large sums of money for obviously looted antiquities. A good example is the Euphronius Vase, for which the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York paid more than one million dollars many years ago. In his subsequent autobiography (appropriately entitled Making the Mummies Dance), Thomas Hoving, then the director of the Met, made it very clear that in purchasing the “hot pot” (as it came to be called in the press) the museum knew just what it was doing.

In Loot I also tell the story of the so-called Lydian Treasure, looted from Turkey, which the same museum purchased without the exercise of adequate due diligence. When Turkey took the matter to the New York courts and sought disclosure of the museum’s records concerning the murky circumstances of the transaction, the Met felt obliged to return the treasure to the Turkish government without any compensation.

Your review accuses me of “vilifying antiquities dealers and museums,” but it does not offer any criticism of those museum personnel and private collectors who pay huge sums (hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of dollars) for unprovenanced antiquities that have appeared on the market (for the first time) since 1970, nearly all of which are likely to be the product of looting. In my book I describe how the Boston Museum of Fine Arts has on exhibit, and declines to return to its country of origin, the top half of a Roman statue of Hercules that joins with the lower half, which was discovered in an archaeological excavation at Perge in Turkey in 1980. The private collector who donated the upper part of the statue to the museum purchased it in 1981!

There are, by contrast, now many museums in the world that decline to buy unprovenanced antiquities that have come onto the market since 1970. The University of Pennsylvania Museum was one of the first of these, and published its acquisitions policy (“The Philadelphia Declaration”) as far back as 1970. The British Museum has followed more recently, and the International Council of Museums (ICOM) has had a coherent code of ethics for many years. Yet is it your view that one “vilifies” museum curators by saying publicly that they have breached the code of ethics that, in most cases, their museums claim to support? Nowhere do you explicitly endorse the Philadelphia Declaration or the British Museum policy.

I shall be happy to continue our “reasonable, if perhaps impassioned, exchange” in your pages if you wish. And let me acknowledge in this reply that you make a number of valid points. It is certainly true that national governments do not always do as much as they might to enforce their own country’s antiquities laws. But the task is a massive one, and countries like Nigeria or Mali or Cambodia or Thailand or even China, where such looting is rampant, sometimes have more pressing problems. Sometimes they lack strong centralized agencies. In some cases there are forces within the administration—the army, for instance, or corrupt officials—who condone or even support the looting. None of this, however, should relieve us in the Western “purchasing nations” of the responsibility to exercise due diligence. For example, troubles abroad do not absolve the Art Institute of Chicago of its failure to trace (or at any rate of its failure to publish) the provenances of many of the Oriental antiquities in the collection donated (or sold) to them by their former Chairman of the Board of Trustees, Jim Alsdorf.

You are right also that preventing access to many ancient materials with informative inscriptions or texts, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls, would be a major loss to scholarship. I am personally uncertain what the right answer is in such cases. But I am uneasy when the Israel Museum pays $550,000 in Switzerland for an ivory pomegranate of unknown provenance but “probably once used in the Solomonic temple,” and fear that such a payment is a massive incentive to looting. It directly encourages the destruction of archaeological sites and hence promotes the loss of information.

You argue for market-based solutions. And certainly I find the suggestion interesting that some of the major museums and government agencies in the “finder” countries might make available, whether permanently or on loan, some of the rich materials in their reserves for museums lacking in such exhibits, possibly in return for payment. In fact, the Getty Museum has recently, in a perfectly ethical way, done well in obtaining some long-term loans in exchange for conservation services.

You asked in your open letter what has changed my mind on some of these issues since 1991. It is the increasing realization of the scale of the loss to us all, in this destructive process, of the potential to know and understand more about the human past. You see the argument is not really about the “things,” the antiquities as entities in themselves. It is about the information about our past, the knowledge to which we should all have access, which can come only from careful excavation and adequate publication of the contexts in which these things are found. That information is lost in the looting process, and once lost can never be recovered. I have become aware how entire cultures—the surviving material remains of peoples and civilizations in different parts of the world—are being destroyed in this process. In such cases nothing remains but uprooted and disenfranchised artifacts in private collections—Cycladic figurines, ivory pomegranates—which mean little in themselves without a secure context. Even their authenticity is often dubious as a result.

I think it very helpful that you too are concerned about such problems and willing to take them seriously. Some of your suggestions may indeed be appropriate and merit further examination and discussion. But I think that you ought explicitly to recognize that private collectors and individual museums, which are staffed by professionals well informed about the issues, have a responsibility in this matter. If you feel that the criticism I made in my book of specific acquisitions of illicit antiquities constitutes “vilification,” then there would be a serious difference between us. It might perhaps lead me to give an unwelcome or even discourteous answer to your question: “Can you believe that I abhor looters as much as you do?”

Yours sincerely,
Colin Renfrew