Art trade

Excavations and trade are essential to the study of antiquities

An international symposium hosted by the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) comes together to discuss the art trade and cultural heritage preservation.


Despite the apparent rancour as portrayed in newsprint and other media, and angst created by high-profile court cases and international negotiations, clearly museums and archaeologists share a common goal: preserving and advancing our knowledge of the past for future generations. In stepping out to proffer guidelines regarding the acquisition and loan of archaeological material and ancient art, and in hosting on 4 May an international symposium related to these issues, the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), representing the largest North American art museums, believes that we can all work toward that common goal.

We should ensure that archaeologists have every opportunity to excavate ancient objects properly and to document the rich details of our past. The looting of archaeological sites and the destruction of ancient monuments is nothing less than tragic. My AAMD colleagues and I, as a museum director, have historically supported, and continue to support, efforts to prevent looting, illicit excavation and illegal trade.

AAMD recently calculated the funds spent on acquiring antiquities by member museums over the last five years. The result? An average of $7.1 million a year, which may be as little as 1% of the estimated global annual total. While North America’s art museums thus represent only the smallest fraction of the trade in ancient art, the work of museums to protect, preserve, exhibit, study, and publish findings about antiquities is central to access to new information. This includes ensuring that the most rigorous research is conducted on all acquisitions, as well as exploring new ideas, programmes and opportunities to study and present antiquities from around the world.

We should engage in dialogue with those nations holding an abundance of untapped archaeological resources to show them that we—collectively, as experts in ancient history, in art history, in excavation, preservation and display—can provide resources that will advance the discovery, study and presentation of their glorious history. Moreover, we feel it is in the interest of all to establish a legitimate market for the sale and trade of works of ancient art, and to do so in a way that respects and supports the needs and perspectives of the source countries.

These initiatives take many forms. Some are long-term partnerships, such as the Harvard University Art Museums joint exploration of Sardis, Turkey, an excavation and research programme that has studied and saved thousands of objects and provided professional training for Turkish and American students, and the Peabody Essex Museum’s collaborative work in China, which has brought a complete traditional Chinese house to the US for permanent display. Some are “rapid response efforts” to protect endangered sites and objects, such as the AAMD’s lobbying of the Defense Department to preempt looting of art in Iraq prior to start of the Gulf War, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s sadly unsuccessful attempt to save the statues of Buddha in Bamiyan from destruction by the Taliban.

It is incumbent on all of us, museums and archaeologists alike, to guarantee that everyone has an opportunity to learn from and admire ancient works of art. This can best be done by understanding the lifecycle of such precious objects: from proper excavation to study and conservation, to presentation and continued access in public institutions such as museums.

AAMD members remain deeply committed to the principle that through the preservation and acquisition of antiquities they can provide the public with a unique opportunity to encounter works of art not only in their countries of origin, but within the context of other cultures. Framing the discussion regarding antiquities as a game in which one side must “lose” in order for the other to “win” is a seriously unfortunate misrepresentation of clearly surmountable issues.

The writer is the director of the Newark Museum and president of the Association of Art Museum Directors.