In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Looting and the Antiquities Market

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals

Classics Looting and the Antiquities Market
Patty Gerstenblith, Corinne R. Smith
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 April 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 April 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0188


The looting of archaeological sites became a significant problem after the Second World War. Archaeological sites had been exploited from the 18th century with varying degrees of emphasis on scientific recovery of artifacts. However, demand created by the postwar growth of the international art market provided an impetus to supply more archaeological artifacts for the market, often through looting of sites, just as advances in scientific methodologies expanded the amount of contextual knowledge that could be recovered about the past through controlled excavation. As the losses inflicted on our ability to reconstruct all facets of the past became better understood, legal mechanisms developed to deter the trade in undocumented archaeological artifacts and the looting of archaeological sites. These legal mechanisms crystallized around the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. The 1970 UNESCO Convention fostered a series of national actions, including ratification and implementation of the convention through domestic legislation. In the early 2000s, several market nations ratified the 1970 convention, ushering in an era in which this convention has served as the basic international legal instrument that attempts to curtail the trade in illegally obtained antiquities. The study of the trade in looted antiquities is prevalent in several disciplines, in addition to legal studies. Ethnographers and anthropologists study the mechanisms of the trade from the looting of the object from the ground to the desires of museums and private collectors to acquire such objects. Criminologists study the motivations of the criminal actors and the best methods for deterring criminal activity. Ethicists explore the ethical dimensions of acquisitions of undocumented archaeological artifacts, particularly by public institutions, and the morality of restitution. Economists theorize about ways that archaeological heritage can become an economically sustainable resource for local populations, thereby reducing the motivation to loot sites. Finally, the international restitution of looted archaeological objects has become a central issue in cultural diplomacy among nations and in relationships among the world’s museums and educational institutions. The contemporary trade in undocumented artifacts is not entirely divorced from the historical scourge brought about through armed conflict and military occupation. The looting of the Iraq Museum in Baghdad during the 2003 Gulf War, followed by the large-scale looting of sites throughout southern Iraq, the looting of sites in Syria and Egypt during the ongoing conflicts to obtain funds, and the dismemberment of Khmer temples in Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge period all attest to the pervasive nature of looting to supply archaeological artifacts for sale on the international art market.

General Overviews

The first edition of Merryman, et al. 2007 was the first compendium to address issues of art and cultural property law in the United States. This volume and subsequent editions, as well as the collection of essays in Merryman 2009, reflect Merryman’s perspective that the international trade in art and cultural objects should be encouraged and subject to as little regulation as possible. The other works cited here present overviews of the field from a more preservationist perspective, one that is in line with the current trends in both international and US legal approaches. Colin Renfrew is perhaps the leading advocate for preservation of the archaeological heritage (see Renfrew 2009).

  • Gerstenblith, Patty. 2012. Art, cultural heritage and the law. 3d ed. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic.

    First published in 2004, this was one of the first and most comprehensive legal casebooks to address the rapidly emerging fields of art and cultural heritage law. The most relevant material to looting and the antiquities market is in Part 3, including chapters on cultural heritage during and after war and cultural heritage in the international context.

  • Merryman, John H. 2009. Thinking about the Elgin Marbles: Critical essays on cultural property, art and law. Alphen aan den Rijn, The Netherlands: Kluwer Law International.

    This collection of essays is divided into three sections on cultural property law (essays relevant to Cultural Heritage Debate), international trade in art and antiquities (essays relevant to Trade in Antiquities and the International Market), and contemporary art law issues.

  • Merryman, John Henry, Albert E. Elsen, and Stephen K. Urice, eds. 2007. Law, ethics and the visual arts. 5th ed. Alphen aan den Rijn, The Netherlands: Kluwer Law International.

    First published in 1979, this text presents legal issues in cultural property, with the most relevant information in the first four chapters: “Plunder, Reparations, and Destruction”; “The International Trade in Art”; “Who Owns the Past?”; and “Repatriation of Cultural Property.”

  • Nafziger, James A. R., and Ann M. Nicgorski, eds. 2009. The legacy of conquest, colonization, and commerce. Leiden, The Netherlands: Martinus Nijhoff.

    This compilation of articles addresses issues related to how colonization, conquest, and commerce affect cultural heritage, including articles on cultural heritage laws, cultural heritage during war, and museum ethics.

  • Prott, Lyndel V., ed. 2009. Witnesses to history: Documents and writings on the return of cultural objects. Paris: UNESCO.

    Includes sections on the history of the return of cultural objects, philosophy and ethics, repatriation in different contexts, legal issues, and procedures for requests.

  • Renfrew, Colin. 2009. Loot, legitimacy, and ownership: The ethical crisis in archaeology. London: Duckworth.

    Addresses the problem of unprovenanced antiquities and collectors’ and museums’ roles in the threat to the world’s archeological heritage.

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