Developing Archaeological Discovery and Conservation

January 31, 2008

Santa Monica, CA


The demand for archaeological artifacts has encouraged a billion-dollar black market and the destruction of the world's cultural heritage through looting and vandalism. From Peru to Thailand, this destruction not only causes tremendous artistic and historical loss, but also strips local economies in developing nation of potential revenue streams.

The trade of antiquities blends the legal with the illicit; much of the illegal trade moves within an established and respected market. A murky chain of events exists between the looter and the dealer or curator, which often makes it difficult to determine, for example, whether Incan pottery on the New York auction block was in fact stolen from a site or released from a long-held private collection. It may be impossible to quell the desire to own a piece of the past, but much can be done to regulate the supply.

To address these critical issues, the Milken Institute hosted a Financial Innovations Lab focused on incentives, market structures and regulatory mechanisms that would foster legal archaeological discovery while generating local economic development to stem looting and promote site preservation.

Participants included museum curators, conservators, archaeologists, governmental officials, academics, lawyers, auctions houses, collectors, antiquities dealers and economists, as well as other experts from the capital markets.

Participants identified the major problems facing the market, including:

  • limited resources to protect sites
  • inability to quantify supply of objects still underground
  • poor infrastructure in countries of origin to regulate legal markets
  • minimal enforcement of multinational laws against wealthy museums and collectors.

    Many of the Lab's experts feel that archaeological artifacts belong to the country of origin and that sales of objects should be prohibited unless deemed appropriate by the state. Other experts, however, feel that antiquities are part of the collective global identity and "belong" to the international community.

    During the regulatory session, much of the debate focused on the Portable Antiquities Scheme, the legal trade of artifacts in the United Kingdom. The Scheme, fiercely opposed by archaeologists as legitimizing looting, has seen relative success in the U.K. in tracking antiquities and educating the public on its cultural heritage. It allows citizens to sell a portion of any antiquities found in a legal market, and was created in response to the increased use of metal detectors to locate Roman coins by local communities. Participants debated the likelihood that this program could be replicated in less developed nations, given the limited resources available.

    The financial solution session focused on long-term leases, museum sponsorship and archaeological development bonds. Participants, especially those from the archaeological community, were reluctant to promote solutions that place an unbalanced focus on artifacts, as opposed to cultural heritage as a whole.

    Archaeological development bonds would channel investment from private investors, philanthropies and governments to countries of origin to increase site protection and generate capital for local communities. By pooling potential revenue streams, including tourism, object leases and media licensing, the bonds would create sustainable funding for excavations around the world.

    Participants agreed that more research must be done to better understand the size of the current market for antiquities, as well as to develop legally and culturally appropriate solutions to the looting crisis.

    A full report on the Lab's findings is available here. For more information, contact Caitlin Maclean at