Monday, 20 June 2011

The scale of the market

One of the issues that needs to be addressed is the scale of the market. Some have suggested that the annual  turnover of antiquities could be as high as $4.5 billion. But how do you define antiquities? Do you take the cultural range that is represented by the "mainstream" sales of antiquities in London and New York: Classical (Greek and Roman); Egyptian; Near Eastern. But what about material from the Far East or Central America?

Is it possible to extrapolate a figure from the stock of a single dealer that was found in a series of London warehouses? If a single dealer could have stock worth a quarter of a billion dollars, what about the range of other dealers in North America, Switzerland, and the Middle East?

One New York dealer has suggested that the annual value was closer to $200 / $300 million per year. Yet one New York auction house alone sold $112 million worth of antiquities in a single year (2007). But that was not a typical year.

I suspect I am at the more conservative end of the scale, hovering around the $100 million mark but willing to go a little higher. Yet this is probably based on public sales rather than the movement of objects through more secret transactions.

What do readers of Looting Matters think?

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Anonymous said...

Auction houses are a bit like the tops of icebergs, we see them but what we don't see is a lot larger. Supposedly, the trade is third only to drugs and weapons (you probably know better)if that is true I could see the trade being worth a billion +

Senta German said...

There is a firm, ArtNet (, which maintains a database of prices for auctioned art sold all over the world, dating back to the mid 1980s. There are flaws (I should know, I worked on the database about 15 years ago...) but it is potentially one metric on this question.

thedrbob said...

The prices realized from these sales and the estimated value of the suggested inventories clearly indicate that all of the anti-collecting hype against the antiquities market is ineffective. What the report also fails to recognize is the sheer number of low end e-commerce sites selling antiquities as well. The market is robust and is apparently ignoring all of the anti-collecting hype.

thedrbob said...

The sums realized from the recent antiquities auctions and the suggested value of alleged inventories suggests that the antiquities market is both robust and flourishing. To that strength must be added the observation that there are an increasing number of low end e-commerce sites offering a wide range of antiquities at moderate prices. Is one, therefore, to conclude that all of this anti-collecting hype is just that, hype, without any effect whatsoever on the actual market?

kyri said...

your way off the mark,i think you will find that illicit antiquities account for far less than you think.comparing the trade with drugs and guns is just nonsense and an attempt to sensationalise the problem.i think you will find that art sales far outstrip the sales of antiquities[one picaso could sell for 50 million].if you take out the realy expensive antiquities which all have fantastic provenance than you are left in my opinion with a negligible figure.big ticket items just do not sell anymore without carst iron provenances.

FlaviusSextus said...

I am certain that the figure is easily over $100 million annually. Just look at ancient coins, which are an integral part of the antiquities trade. Some North American auction houses gross tens of millions of dollars annually. VCoins (, an aggregator of ancient coin dealers, has an inventory of about $25 million at present. And in addition to this there are many more individual internet and physical storefronts and dozens more auction houses in Europe. The ancient coin trade alone is worth perhaps $100 million annually. So, I think if you look at the antiquities trade overall, you'd find a much bigger number.

Wayne G. Sayles said...

What does it matter? Even a common ancient coin worth $5 on the world market is "priceless" in the eyes of archaeologists and the sycophant press. The size of the market is just hyperbole.

Paul Barford said...

So what Sayles is saying is that priceless information about the past is trashed by plundering sites for collectables so dealers like him can earn a measly five bucks?

But of course the looting of sites like Archar (Bulgaria) on an industrial sale produces not single coins ("worth five bucks") but produces bucketfuls of ancient artefacts (read:"archaeological evidence") worth very much more from which middlemen and dealers sort the five-buck coins from that which they can sell for bigger money.

The five-buck coin (and "minor artefacts for reasonable prices" above) often trotted out by these people are the byproducts of a larger process.

One which, whatever the precise value, is generating big money. It should be stressed that this trade exists because of the money it can generate - not because the people involved in it are interested in "preserving the past" still less preserving information about the past which can be gained from the study of the archaeological record. Claims to the contrary are pure hyperbole.

Sayles' view is typical of the narrow wholly object-centred approach US (usually) collectors have to what they persist in calling the "cultural property debate", when it is in reality a resource conservation issue. One wonders what it will take to bring this home to them.

Paul Barford said...

"if you take out the really expensive antiquities which all have fantastic provenance than you are left in my opinion with a negligible figure. big ticket items just do not sell any more without cast iron provenances".

That's a joke, right?

Surely Looting Matters shows a large number of cases where expensive antiquities do not have provenances at all. Some may have "fantastic" ones (in the sense 'imaginary'), but as we have seen rarely "cast iron' ones.

I think LM has shown very well that lack of collecting history does not prevent people from buying stuff.

LM has also shown that even when items are highlighted as being tainted, it does not make some people think twice about buying the stuff. Several cases here.

In any case, what you call "the really expensive antiquities which all have fantastic provenance", being licitly obtained, would not be included in Dr Gill's assessment of the scale of the ILLICIT market.

I personally think Kyri that you are quite wrong about the "negligible" value of the trade. A lot of people make a lot of dollars from the sale of illicitly obtained dugup antiquities - which is why there is such stiff opposition to those who say the trade should clean up its act. As Mr Sextus points out above, just one segment of the market in just one country is worth tens of millions.

Just how many dollars worth of shabtis, scarabs, amulets and other "minor" ancient Egyptian bric-a-brac are sold in the USA each year? Every dealer seems to have at least several dozen in their stock. How much of that really comes from tourists visiting Cairo and Luxor in the 1920s? Some shabtis are on the market for nearly 2000 dollars apiece. Then there is the cuneiform,and the Near eastern seals...

All little things Kyri, they can be fitted in a suitcase between the dirty socks and the carrier would probably not get caught taking them out of the country.

kyri said...

yes they are little things but who would risk it,i think the smuggling is alot more sophisticated than stuffing a few small pieces in between the socks.personaly i think that the people doing it are well organised and shipping containers,i think this goes high up in the source countrys were it is easy money to alot of civil servants.of course looting matters shows many examples of high end pieces with no provenance all im saying is that in the last 5 years things have changed and the auction houses are starting to ask questions.its not as easy as it was in the 80s and 90s.

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