Who owns archaeological artifacts?

History or Art?

In recent years, there's been a trend where countries have laid claim to artifacts that museums have had in their possession for decades or even hundreds of years. It all started with the Culture Minister of Italy in 2006, when he decided to mount a campaign to have dozens of archaeological finds returned to their country of origin, Italy. Other countries that zealously guard their cultural heritage have since jumped on board. For example, Egypt asked for the return of the bust of Nefertiti from Germany, and Peru demanded artifacts from Machu Picchu from the United States.

Now the questions are these: Are objects found on archaeological digs art or history, and are these objects the property of the country of origin or humanity as a whole? Art museums have firmly voiced that the objects are art and should be displayed for the broadest possible audience. In other words, museums want to keep their worldly collections intact. Museums aren't the only ones vulnerable to losing items from their collections. The Italian cultural minister went after a private collector for one piece and got it back. It should come as no surprise that the countries with the richest bevy of ancient history are the ones leading the charge. The 1970 Unesco Convention established a set of international standards for the rights to cultural property, and while there's no requirement to join the convention, more than 100 countries have ratified it. Under the convention, the rights to these objects have fallen on the side of the source country.

For legitimate archaeological teams who conduct business on the up and up, this is all good news. These laws and conventions help to reduce what has become a serious problem -- looting and black market sales. Some archaeologists have labeled the current looting problem an international crisis. When archaeological sites are looted, not only is it impossible to know where the artifacts have ended up after a profitable sale, but the site itself is also usually destroyed in the process. With archaeology, it's important to not only find the object, but to also analyze the state and placement of the object to determine its age.

Archaeologists contend that the many laws to help protect these sites have essentially failed. Both private collectors and museums have been guilty of buying looted items in the past. Archaeologist David Gill, from Swansea University in Wales, examined Egyptian artifacts that were sold at auction between 1998 and 2007, and discovered that 95 percent of them could not be traced to their place of origins. This doesn't mean that they were all looted, but Gill believes that a great deal of them likely were.

In the field of archeology, there's a general hope for a shift from the treasure-hunter-for-hire model back to digs sanctioned by, or operated in conjunction with, the host country or state. Some people have proposed other means of sharing finds between countries, like leasing programs. Another idea is partage, a system that worked pretty well up through the first part of the 20th century. With partage, the countries where the artifacts are found keep the lion's share of the objects, and the finder is permitted to bring a small share home to the university or museum that sponsored the excavation. These days, the host country gets to keep nearly everything, regardless of who's footing the bill for the dig. No matter which way the archaeological field goes, it's clear that the market for antiquity, or who owns history, is still ambiguous.

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