Italy's attempt at curbing illegal art excavation and trade backfires

Make the citizen your ally if you want to save the nation’s past

The Italian government has been forced by public opinion into doing the wrong thing for the right reasons. It has dropped the clause in its Budget Bill that would have allowed Italians holding archaeological goods to declare them to the authorities and, on payment of a percentage of their value, become their legal owners.

This clause has been denounced by admirable and authoritative figures as officially turning a blind eye towards the murky world of illicit archaeological digs and trade in antiquities. And indeed, there are many things wrong about the clause.

First, such one-off amnesties, where the citizen gets round some widely flouted law, for what is essentially a bribe, do nothing to encourage the growth of a civil society, but reinforce the average Italian’s cynical view of authority.

Second, this amnesty would have given comfort to the criminal trade, from the humble tomb-robber to the mafioso middle-man and the international crook, with potentially embarrassing legal implications beyond Italy’s frontier.

Third, by such provisions, this government, which was elected to reform and lighten Italy’s authoritarian and contorted legal system, is failing in this respect, but is going for an easy, revenue-raising option instead. It was right therefore for the clause to be withdrawn.

The underlying problem is, however, one that needs to be addressed. As the law stands in Italy at present, all archaeological finds belong to the State and there can be no legal commerce in them. Yet, if people obeyed this law, the museums would be even more stuffed than they are now with pieces that they have difficulty conserving, let alone displaying.

But as this newspaper has demonstrated on various occasions in the past, and as is well known in the archaeological world, this law is not observed. There is widespread looting in Italy, and chance finds are nearly always destroyed if they are visually unappealing, or kept hidden from the authorities if valuable. After all, what interest does the finder have in declaring something if it will automatically be confiscated and the site fenced off, maybe for years while the archaeologists get round to excavating it?

The knowledge that is lost with each destroyed site is immeasurable, and it is not just a nationalistic loss to Italy, but to the history of us all.

In the UK, by contrast, archaeological items belong to the finder or owner of the land; the State compensates finders at market value for the pieces it wants. Archaeologists have traditionally worked with the citizen and the Portable Antiquities Scheme has made the collaboration even closer. Go to and you will find information about 102,000 objects, with 33,000 images, all declared by members of the public since 1997 when the scheme started. This admirable project (it cost a mere £1.3 million in Lottery money in 2003) is making allies of hundreds of metal detectorists and educating the community in the importance of archaeology. This is both good for history and good for society.

The argument that the archaeologically rich countries make against such a liberal regime is that Britain has a relatively poor archaeological past and the State can therefore afford to buy the few finds of great importance; they, on the other hand, are heaving with treasure underground, far beyond what the public purse could ever afford.

This argument is outdated even within the terms of the discipline of archaeology; it is many years since archaeology has been principally a treasure hunt. Now the real treasure is information, and the finds, once recorded, could theoretically go anywhere in the world without damaging the patrimony of their find country and our global heritage. Of course, the museums of the source countries should have the first choice of what to keep, but the sale of the rest could help compensate the finders, fund more and better excavations, better protection of sites, better display and closer relations with the public and international scholars. This is urgently necessary as economic development either disturbs more and more archaeological sites or obliterates them, as with the damming projects in China, Turkey and Iran (see p.5). Iran and China are so far from making allies of their citizens in this field that both have recently executed people found guilty of dealing illegally in antiquities.

Proposing such a change in the law would be politically dangerous in the source countries, most of which have bitter memories of exploitation by richer nations. Italy is no exception to this, but today it is wealthy and confident enough to start contemplating a more liberal, more positive regime and show other countries that a defensive nationalism is not in everyone’s best interest.

The writer is founder editor of The Art Newspaper and Group Editorial Director of Umberto Allemandi Publishing

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘Make the citizen your ally if you want to save the nation’s past'