U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, as part of a recent investigation called "Operation Mummy's Curse," exhibits illegally smuggled ancient artifacts that were repatriated to Egypt.
Josh Denmark U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, as part of a recent investigation called "Operation Mummy's Curse," exhibits illegally smuggled ancient artifacts that were repatriated to Egypt.

Maxwell L. Anderson opens his new book Antiquities: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford University Press, 2016) with a compelling observation: Over 3 million shipwrecks sit on the ocean floor, “many laden with priceless art treasures and artifacts from thousands of years ago.”

There is a goldmine waiting to be discovered, and with advances in technology enabling easier routes to things like sunken treasure, the new discoveries will ignite age-old questions of provenance and ethics. Anderson’s book is a primer on the subject: What is the difference between field archaeology and antiquities art? Why does provenance matter? How do we best protect our cultural heritage? The book reviews the various moral choices and offers readers a practical guide to existing laws, governance, and the question of repatriation.

Anderson spent nearly 30 years as an art museum director before becoming the executive director for the New Cities Foundation, an international nonprofit focused on improving urban life. He understood early in his career the ethical quandary that ancient objects can pose, when he witnessed a major museum collect artworks with questionable provenance. He has long worked to shed light onto the sometimes-dark market of objects that have been uprooted via looting, pillaging, or governmental mismanagement, and he has recently suggested ways in which international governments could curb the systematic looting in Syria and Iraq by the Islamic State.

Antiquities is written for both the layperson and for those in the field, where definitions can be mutable, and laws vary from country to country, creating the challenge of how you properly move objects around the globe (or leave them be). Anderson explores how a robust black market and looting laws without teeth can conspire to erase lineage, obfuscate provenance, and create a gap in the story these objects can and should tell.

A diver explores the Green Lantern shipwreck in the Gulf of Mexico.
NOAA photo library (Lophelia II 2009: Deepwater Coral Expedition) A diver explores the Green Lantern shipwreck in the Gulf of Mexico.


There can be a “contest for supremacy,” as you call it, between archaeologists and art historians, which threatens antiquities. Why?
These two factions fail to agree on what matters most about antiquities, and it results in fault lines within laws, policies, and personal behavior. For archaeologists (to oversimplify a bit), an object is a cipher of a time and place, a clue into better understanding how people lived, worked, worshiped, and played. Even a humble, undecorated object may hold clues to enlarge that understanding, like a potter’s stamp on the bottom of a jug, for example, that could help date a group of other finds.

An art historian begins with an interest in the most refined examples of craftsmanship, and assumes that ancient people privileged refined works over humble ones, just as most people do today. While art historians are also hungry for contextual information, they think objects have an inherent importance even without it.

So one point of view is wedded to the particularities of an object’s origins, while the other sees a universal virtue in well-made, visually arresting things. For the scientifically inclined, the art market fosters criminality, and for the aesthetically inclined, it’s better to get objects that are already out of the ground into collections where they can be safeguarded. There are virtues in each point of view, but they are for the time being irreconcilable.

Tomb of the Abbasid Caliphs in Egypt (circa 1860); eight wood beams were stolen from the dome and repatriated in 2016 after they were slated to be auctioned off in London.
A.D. White; Cornell University Library Tomb of the Abbasid Caliphs in Egypt (circa 1860); eight wood beams were stolen from the dome and repatriated in 2016 after they were slated to be auctioned off in London.

There is also the challenge of varying definitions and laws from country to country. Why is it so easy, to this day, to loot or move goods illegally?
Cellphones with cameras are ubiquitous, and social media tools permit people unearthing antiquities to snap an image, send it to a middle man, secure a sale, and vanish. Massive quantities of goods are in global circulation every hour of the day, and it’s not a big challenge for a motivated member of a criminal syndicate to tuck an object or group of objects into a shipping container or crate for delivery without being caught.

I was surprised to read that the U.S. offers little protection, other than to indigenous cultures, and that we leave protection of our material culture largely to private philanthropy efforts. How does that affect creativity and material culture here?
When the Founding Fathers came up with our enduring commitment to individual liberties, the cultural construct of the United States was in formation. We imported art from Europe to decorate the homes of well-to-do people in the late 18th and 19th centuries. Our own creativity was a bit sidelined as we were building a nation. Despite the fact that American artists have made remarkable contributions over the life of our nation, this nation’s overarching commitment to individual liberty has never accommodated changes in how we view cultural heritage. As a result, we are unique in the developed world in having minimal national protection of artistic objects or heritage in general other than Native American material. And our citizenry, therefore, isn’t raised in a society that privileges the past.

Moche Earrings from the Larco Museum in Lima, Peru, which were seized from art collectors and traffickers in Argentina and were repatriated in 2016
Bernard Gagnon; courtesy of Wikipedia. Moche Earrings from the Larco Museum in Lima, Peru, which were seized from art collectors and traffickers in Argentina and were repatriated in 2016

You are an art historian who served as a museum director. Was this how you became interested in the ethical collection of antiquities?
I started studying ancient art in college, having spent a couple of years as a kid living in Europe, where I developed a naïve sensitivity to the realities of heritage protection. When, as a visiting professor at the University of Rome, I saw firsthand the effects of looting, it persuaded me that a love of ancient art shouldn’t mean closing my eyes to the destruction of ancient sites.

Early in your career, you had opinions about the ethics of collecting that may have been out of step with the museum culture at large. Did these views make you unpopular?
I was hardly alone in promoting alternatives to collecting unprovenanced antiquities in the 1980s. But the museum profession was a bit slow to acknowledge that acquisitions of antiquities without any diligence in researching their origins could contribute to criminal conduct—and the erasure of history. In time, those of us privileging caution prevailed, though not without some lost friendships.

The Elgin Marbles on display at the British Museum
The Elgin Marbles on display at the British Museum


It was easy for acquisitions to be made with shady middlemen. Did the art world operate on a “don’t ask, don’t tell” kind of policy?
For most museum professionals until the 1990s, the abiding belief was that an object already out of the ground was better off in a climate-controlled, secure museum case than remaining in the art market. That led to a willingness to overlook the origins of the object on offer, since it couldn’t be put back in the ground anyway. Most curators and directors had a heartfelt belief that safeguarding treasures and teaching Americans about antiquities were of ascendant value—and the criminal trail that may have preceded an object’s arrival wasn’t as evident as it has become in recent years.

Has that changed?
Absolutely. In 2008 the Association of Art Museum Directors—representing the leading North American art museums—adopted a set of guidelines stipulating that antiquities considered for acquisition should have been out of their nation of modern discovery by the year 1970. While exceptions are permitted, they are illustrated on a shared database explaining the grounds of claiming an exception, leaving the museum open to claims.

You note that there’s a surprising economic value to provenance. As more museums require a documented background on antiquities for sale, the market value goes up. Why?
The civil and criminal pursuit or prosecution of antiquities dealers and curators and collectors in the early 2000s had an immediate chilling effect in the art market. The successful application of the National Stolen Property Act in prosecuting claims means that a collector, museum professional, or trustee purchasing something that turns out to be illegally exported can be subject to prosecution. So the market for objects lacking either proof of legal export or evidence that they have been in circulation over enough time has weakened, and the market for objects proven or presumed to have left their place of discovery legally has surged.

The wreck of the bulk freighter Norman, which sank in 1895 in Lake Huron near Thunder Bay
NOAA Photo Library The wreck of the bulk freighter Norman, which sank in 1895 in Lake Huron near Thunder Bay

You write about the idea of repose—a country getting to own an object simply because it’s been there for a period of time. What’s your take on this practice?
I’m old-fashioned in this respect. I am interested in promoting ethical conduct today, not in penalizing institutions for having collected under different norms in the past. While there may be legitimate exceptions on a case-by-case basis, I start with the assumption that what’s done is done, and that we are all better off sharing information and knowledge about existing collections than in attempting to right perceived wrongs from decades or centuries ago.

What do you believe to be the most pressing issue or issues facing antiquities today?
I guess it’s the need to arrive at greater agreement on what our individual and collective responsibilities are in safeguarding evidence of the past. The divisions between archaeologists and collectors, and between source nations and market nations, are hindering the adoption of practical and responsible efforts to save examples of irreplaceable sites, monuments, and artifacts.

What about the societal “appetite for present distractions” overwhelming interest in our past?
I’d say that the unremitting bombardment of information is making it harder to concentrate on anything—including veneration of the past. For a younger reader, the relevance of antiquity may be limited unless they see themselves reflected in it. So it’s incumbent on museums and archaeological authorities to fight for attention in the public sphere, which is what motivated me to write this book.