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Tompa on "stolen" antiquities

Peter Tompa has posed this question in response to my post on factoids:
But isn't the "Mother of All" such "factoids" in the cultural property debate the insinuation by members of the archaeological community like Prof. Gill that undocumented artifacts "must be stolen?"
I would have hoped that Tompa as a trained lawyer would be precise in his use of language. My use of the word "stolen" is normally applied to:
I see that I make a clear distinction in a discussion of Philippe de Montebello's comment on the Sarpedon krater: "I find it interesting that he [sc. de Montebello] uses the word 'stolen' to describe the 'looting' of ancient cemeteries."

For me "stolen" implies "obtained by theft" (OED).

Tompa also draws attention to "undocumented artifacts". But let us be more precise. I often use the phrase "recently surfaced antiquities" (or something similar) to indicate objects that have appeared in a museum, private collection, auction or some other sale that do not have authenticated documentation that allows the collecting history to be traced back to 1970 (see "The 1970 rule"). (Christopher Chippindale and I had been using 1973 as our benchmark but for these purposes let us use 1970 as the date now adopted by the AAMD.) Objects that surfaced prior to 1970 deserve to be treated in a different way to those that have surfaced post 1970.

At the same time 1970 should not be used to ignore national laws that have earlier dates or indeed claims on significant cultural property. This category could contain the Benin bronzes, the Rosetta stone, the Parthenon sculptures, or bronzes removed from China. However it should be noted that such objects normally have some documentation or collecting history. For example, we know that the Parthenon sculptures were displayed on a marble temple constructed on the Athenian acropolis during the 440s and 430 BCE.

In our 2000 paper, "Material consequences of contemporary classical collecting", published in the American Journal of Archaeology, Chippindale and I drew attention to the lack of collecting histories in a range of private European and North American private collections. Our research was indeed significant as objects from two of the collections discussed by us have now been returned to Italy; items from one of these two collections have been returned to Greece.

And why have these objects been returned to Italy and Greece? Is it because they have undocumented histories?

Tompa knows this is not the answer.

It is because there is documentary evidence and, in some (perhaps all) cases, photographs of the pieces. Some of this information was seized in raids in the Geneva Freeport.

Tompa, as an attorney, knows that museums and private individuals would not hand over objects to foreign governments unless there was some kind of evidence. He will also have observed that these cases did not come to court. Amicable agreements were made with the institutions and individuals.

But back to Tompa's "mother of all factoids". Are members of the archaeological community, including myself, insinuating that undocumented artifacts "must be stolen"?

I can only speak for myself. But the answer has to be "no".

Is Tompa presenting the views of the archaeological community in an accurate way?


Archaeologists are raising concerns about the looting of archaeological sites.

Red figure loutrophoros (ceramic), attributed to the Darius Painter. South Italian, Apulian, ca. 335-325 B.C. One of four objects to be transferred in title to the Italian government but to remain on loan to the Princeton University Art Museum.



I see you do not agree with my views about the Mother of All "factoids" in the cultural property debate.

But one need look no further than the web site of the Archaeological Institute of America to find evidence that this factoid is indeed the touchstone of the archaeological community's position:

"The essential disagreement between museums, private collectors and archaeologists is whether museums and private collectors should acquire these undocumented artifacts; archaeologists believe most undocumented antiquities are the product of recent site looting and therefore museums should not acquire them....


In addition, many countries that are rich in archaeological resources have enacted national ownership laws. This means that any antiquity in the ground at the time the ownership law was enacted is the property of the nation. If such an artifact is dug up and removed from the country without permission it is stolen property, and remains so even after it is brought to the United States. Those objects should be dealt with in the same way as one would treat any other stolen property."


Under the circumstances, I am uncertain why you deny that members of the archaeological community insinuate that "undocumented artifacts" "must be stolen."

I am happy, however, that you suggest that you disagree with the AIA on this point.


Peter Tompa
David Gill said…
Dear Peter

I have made my position clear on the use of the word "stolen". In my mind there is a distinction. You suggested in your post I used the word "stolen" in a particular way. I do not believe I do.

A key word you use - and which is where we disagree - is "insinuation". Is looting - in your mind - a convenient fiction? Does the clandestine opening of ancient tombs take place to provide objects for the market?

What do you think?

But what is the issue behind my post? Are recently surfaced antiquities (i.e. post-1970) derived (in part) from looted archaeological sites? What is your evidence that looting does not take place? Do you think that such claims about looting are unfounded? Why have North American institutions returned antiquities to Italy?

These are the main questions that need to be answered.

Do you value our (yours too!) cosmopolitan heritage? Or are you happy for it to be destroyed?

Best wishes

Mr. Tompa,

You quote the AIA page (which DG did not write) as saying that "archaeologists believe most undocumented antiquities are the product of recent site looting..." (my emphasis), but then you ask DG to defend the claim that we archaeologists "insinuate" that these items "must be stolen."

Perhaps the use of "insinuate" gives you sufficient wiggle room, but the clear meaning of the statement by the AIA (which by no means equals all archaeologists) is that archaeologists believe that most but not all undocumented artifacts are the result of illegal activity.

BTW, do you disagree with the statement that "most undocumented antiquities are the product of recent site looting"?
John- Yes, I disagree with that statement, particularly for artifacts like ancient coins which have been traded without accompanying provenance information for at least 600 years.

Peter Tompa
David Gill said…
For further discussion of the word "stolen" see a more recent posting.

I would be surprised if the number of ancient undocumented coins discovered before 1970 outnumbers those discovered since, given the large number of very large lots of such coins available at places like eBay. I would suspect that the these more recent coins easily outnumber the older ones.

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