Antiquities & Archaeology

Don’t just berate the thieves: look at the museums and excavators too

In the last of our series which publishes talks given in London this summer, Professor Sir John Boardman, Lincoln Professor Emeritus of classical archaeology and art at Oxford, singles out three areas for concern.


As I see it, there are three things badly wrong with classical archaeology today. I shall mention two of them at the end of this article. The first is the one which has prompted the formation of the International Association of Dealers in Ancient Art (IADAA): that is, on the legal side, the traffic in stolen antiquities, on the academic side, the destruction of ancient sites and contexts in the interests of this traffic.

It is possible to take three different views of this. It may be held that the ownership, and especially the ownership and display of a fine antiquity, is a worthwhile end in itself, a legitimate pursuit whether for self-satisfaction or the delight and instruction of the public, and that how that antiquity was obtained and whatever loss of other information may have been involved are relatively unimportant so long as the law cannot be proved to have been broken; that in some respects such acquisition is a form of rescue operation. I think this view is held by many collectors and some museums. It is indefensible in legal terms; the law is the law. But it is understandable since collecting is and has ever been a natural pursuit at most levels of society and in all periods. In educational terms it may be defended on the grounds that only through the dispersal of such works can they effectively instruct the public about the past, and, oddly enough, it seems that all civilised societies evince a need to know about their past and the past of mankind in general, although the narrower concept of national heritage is in many cases pretty bogus and often depends on political expediency. This educational aim is hampered by source countries forbidding export of even casual finds and duplicates, and so it might seem to a slight degree justified to circumvent the laws which they barely or never enforce, in the interests of public education. In more closely academic terms, the attitude is indefensible. On the whole it is not an attitude that can be justified at all, although it has arisen as much as anything as a reaction to the illiberal attitudes of source countries and to a form of protectionism practised by scholars. Our pursuit of the past is in the interests of public education worldwide, not just for the satisfaction of scholars, collectors, museums, dealers or national pride.

At the other end of the spectrum there is the attitude of a number of scholars, usually not art historians, who wish to see the rule of law upheld—and quite rightly so. They have other problems, though, which they are slow to acknowledge or act on, and which I shall discuss later. Their approach to all dealing and collecting of what they regard as stolen antiquities is politically quite correct, but in many respects quite unrealistic, unjust or naive. The casual and even deliberate collecting of antiquities is as old as the instinct to collect them, or anything else. This will never stop. What can and must be stopped is the deliberate search for antiquities purely for the trade, resulting in the destruction of sites. This should be stopped at source, by law, but many countries seem unable or even unwilling to enforce these laws, and prefer to try to recover the more spectacular finds, which they never knew they had, through the courts after they have escaped, rather than exercise what would probably be better preventive measures. They also seem unwilling to stifle the trade in expensive antiquities by releasing the unexhibited and unstudied material in their storerooms. Some are reluctant to receive returned objects which might prove embarrassing. All this rather hampers my willingness to support the hardened antagonists of all trade and collecting. Their method of trying to counter the trade by refusing publication or discussion or review of doubtful objects can hardly be judged to be in the interests of the scholarship that they are supposed to uphold, and indeed amounts to a form of intellectual censorship without being in the least effective. Some of us might think all censorship more abhorrent than much theft.

I have mentioned national heritage, and would add a few words. The Northampton amphora belonged to an important Grand Tour collection at Castle Ashby where it was seen, though unlabelled, by a minority of the public but was accessible to scholars. There was a case for declaring the whole collection a part of our national heritage, as an example of Grand Tour collecting, but nothing was done to stop its sale, and by breaking it up any claim of any one piece to be a monument of national heritage seems to me to fail. But by having it so declared the vase has been out of the view of scholars and the public for ten years, and only now emerges for a while in the current exhibition of the Niarchos Collection in Athens, in the wonderful and instructive Goulandris Museum which is almost wholly stocked with the product of illicit excavation. The recent saga of Canova’s Graces and the Getty provokes similar questions. And what, I ask, do we do about countries whose concept of national heritage does not extend to everything found on their soil? For example, the attitudes of some eastern countries to anything that is not Islamic, or even of Greece, at least in the recent past, to anything non- or pre-Greek.

I have talked about the extreme attitudes to the problem. There is a broad middle ground, to which I and, I believe, a silent majority of scholars belong. It tries to be realistic, concerned for the proper treatment of antiquities by dealers, auction houses, collectors, museums, governments and scholars, yet is profoundly uneasy about the practices of all these groups. At this point I can only express personal opinions, some of them perhaps not altogether well thought out and at points perhaps even contradictory. The best I can do is try to express what I would like to see each of the groups I have named do, given that we live in an imperfect world, but one in which we have to accept the facts of constant casual discovery of antiquities, a desire to collect them privately and publicly, and recognition of their educational importance in our society.


I shall come later to the IADAA’s Code of Ethics. For some dealers their competence as scholars and as traders are closely linked and it would be difficult to say which led the other. There is nothing intrinsically wrong about making money out of academic expertise. For others dealing is a living, with academic expertise inevitably picked up en route, and with it academic responsibilities. Responsible dealers must positively shun antiquities which, whether proved or not, obviously come from deliberate robbing of sites which can be predicted to be productive, sometimes of special objects which are in demand (Cycladic idols, Anatolian sarcophagi and big South Italian vases come to mind for the classical world). I would like to see them attentive to the character of the buyers as much as the price, and to recognise that they share a general responsibility to see that evidence for man’s past is not lost to view or misused; in other words, to favour public museums and responsible private owners whose collections are accessible and likely to become public property in time.

Auction houses

Auction houses should observe the same rules as dealers and not shelter behind the responsibility of sellers.


Collectors should regard themselves as guardians rather than owners of objects that form part of a common human heritage. They should therefore make them accessible to scholars and, where possible, the public, and plan if possible for their eventual disposition with the same aims in mind. In pursuing particular classes of object they should be very careful not to be encouraging deliberate search for them in the ground.


Rather than avoid all objects that have no pedigree, which is the practice of some museums today under pressure from some archaeologists, they should feel obliged to rescue from the market any objects of notable historical importance, whether or not they might be judged also works of art, and whether or not there is any likelihood or indeed desirability of them being returned to their country of origin. I think, for example, of objects that have emerged over the last fifteen years from Iran and Afghanistan. Public museums not in source countries should never de-accession objects into the trade, but by negotiation with other public museums where they can better serve their role of display and instruction. The problem here would be greedy Trustees.


Source countries should liberalise their laws about the disposal of duplicates or of objects which cannot readily be made accessible to the public or scholars. This can be done without loss of knowledge of their contexts, if recorded, and would best be done to other public museums, but if need be to the trade provided that record has been kept. Views on national heritage should be adjusted. Legislation should encourage people to conserve and report antiquities, not conceal, destroy or sell them. That governments will ever legislate effectively to promote any of this seems unlikely and could as easily lead to worse abuses and render it difficult or impossible to use objects for maximum public educational benefit. The issue is not important enough to them though it can sometimes be stimulated when politically expedient. UNESCO seems ineffectual, and would do better to consider global interests in education through display of antiquities than to encourage national possessiveness.


Scholars and scholarly institutions employing scholars, should not lend their expertise to the appraisal of objects being handled by dealers or auction houses who are not observing closely the standards already described. Major publication of collections of material stolen from targeted sites can only enhance their value and encourage the trade: I think of the Cycladic idols. On the other hand, it is unacceptable and unrealistic to pretend that some things do not exist or to censor discussion, and there may be circumstances in which the pursuit of knowledge may take precedence over a desire to hinder the pursuit of gain by others.

This one must unreservedly welcome, and, as devil’s advocate, all I can do now is to remark on what seem to me to be some shortcomings, which those of us in the middle ground of this discussion might feel uneasy about. The dedicated collectors will think that the Code (published in The Art Newspaper, No. 41, October, 1994, pp. 19-20) can only cramp their style, and the hardliners will think it is a cover-up, but I hope they will take it seriously and maintain a dialogue. If a moral stance is to be adopted rather than a legal one, cut-off dates before UNESCO resolutions or the like should be meaningless.

If the spirit of the Code is properly observed it seems to me difficult for many dealers to remain in business, given the apparent character of much that is on the market. Since members of the Association obviously intend to remain in business, a critic will look for any loopholes that may have been left in the Code. Thus, the IADAA regards all objects as innocent unless proved guilty, and no doubt many are, yet no one would present anything to you for trade with evidence of guilt, that is, of recent illegal removal, and this will be even more carefully suppressed than hitherto. To presume all objects guilty unless proved innocent, which is the hardliners’ view, is thus to some degree justifiable, but there might be some relief for the relatively trivial which can be of great educational and even decorative value.

The IADAA writes of theft from excavation which might be taken to mean from existing or abandoned official excavations. I miss any explicit commitment to avoid the product, presumed if not proved, of deliberate or sponsored illicit excavation, which is surely a prime source, rather than casual finds. I am sorry that auction houses are not included since it may be thought that the trade may simply move away from dealers’ catalogues and showrooms and be, as it were, laundered through auction. Since the IADAA represents a responsible minority of dealers we must hope that it will in time represent a majority, and that the world can draw its own conclusions, probably correctly, about those who stay outside the Association. The proof of success will be when it actually does something, even if only expel a member, but it needs also to demonstrate positive behaviour in line with the Code, such as I know to be the practice by some dealers of the Association and some collectors, but is seldom publicised. All other undertakings of the Code are admirable but again must be openly exercised, as I know is already being done with the IADAA Archive.

I said at the start that there are three major problems in archaeology today, and I meant mainly classical archaeology which is all I really know about. I will now go on to say a little about the other two, which concern excavators and museums.

The first concern is about archaeologists who destroy ancient sites no less effectively than tomb robbers, but in the name of scholarship—which should be a reputable aim; and not for profit—which is not. The only excavation that seems wholly legitimate is to rescue sites and objects from natural or man-made threat. Some other excavation directed to solving well defined problems is a legitimate pursuit of knowledge. Much excavation is pursued for self-esteem of individuals or institutions, the desire to “have their own site” or gratify ing not so much with an eye to further excavation as to teach the constraints of the process for scholarly results and practise new techniques. Methods of excavation have improved since Schliemann, but not much, and in fifty years’ time present methods will be derided as almost wholly destructive of most evidence, since we are surely approaching an age of exploration by remote sensing with soil-removal a last option. No excavation today is completely published, through deficiencies in digging or recording, laziness, devolution of responsibility which eventually destroys any possibility of a unified view, or a greedy desire to go on digging elsewhere.

I cannot believe that we have any moral responsibility to save every vestige of the past, though we should investigate wherever opportunity arises since this investigation seems almost a condition of our survival as a civilised society. But it takes a totally blinkered and self-serving archaeologist to believe that the past is more important than the future. I am afraid that my profession is more arrogantly selfish than many in the academic world. The American Institute of Archaeology has recently published a code of practice, which is fine as far as it goes, but it threatens no sanctions on offenders, as does yours. It would be so easy to withold funding and permissions and enforce publication, but it seems never in the interest of those in the position to do so. There are many theoretical archaeologists in our business now. They may on occasion abuse the evidence of antiquity, but at least they do not try to destroy it, rather than each other.


It should be incumbent on a public museum to make available its holdings not merely through display, which is bound to be selective, but through publication by its staff. This used to be a generally accepted practice. Some museums have an excellent record; for others it is abysmal and staff exercise their privileges without responsibility. And I do not point the finger only at others, since in the museum where I have spent most of my academic life, as a teacher, no staff curator of the classical collections has completed or, with one exception, even attempted to create, a publication of any major part of the collection in the last thirty-five years. Where are the publications of Oxford’s classical sculpture, bronzes, terracottas, some three-quarters of its vases? You may well ask. The position is one which some museum directors find it inconvenient to disturb, and when they do, as in the Victoria and Albert Museum a few years ago, professional self-interest is noisily indignant and the vested interest in sinecures is protected. Staff are busy, of course, and many museums have found it easier to find money for purchases than for staff. Their priorities are wrong. In source countries staff generally have far too much to do. In that case they should be more liberal in making material available for others to publish, especially where major cataloguing is required, instead of exercising an unrealistic droit de seigneur over their objects, or a degree of ethnic discrimination about who can study what.