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From the President: Landmark Decision Volume 55 Number 3, May/June 2002
by Nancy C. Wilkie

A challenge to museums and a blow to antiquities traffickers

The conviction of antiquities dealer Frederick Schultz on charges of conspiring to receive and possess antiquities stolen from Egypt ("Pharaoh on the Stand," November/December 2001) has jolted fellow dealers, collectors, and museum directors, the latter accustomed to buying some of their finest pieces from the art market. Gary Vikan, director of the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore and chairman of the Arts Issue Committee of the Association of Art Museum Directors, believes, as he told the New York Times, that the verdict will have "a chilling impact on the dealing community, and that is a big deal, because insofar as that happens, there will be less out there for the buying community," i.e., museums.

But should museums continue to purchase antiquities at the same rate as in the past? Most museums have storerooms full of objects that have never been displayed but have great educational value. According to the American Association of Museums' Code of Ethics, "Museums make their unique contribution to the public by collecting, preserving, and interpreting [italics mine] the things of this world." Instead of buying potentially plundered artifacts, museums might better fulfill their mission by creating interpretive exhibits with existing collections and encouraging more traveling exhibitions from other museums.

For any object to be educationally valuable, it must have a known provenience. It is not enough to say that an object is "said to be from" a certain site or region, or that it is "similar to" other excavated, well-documented objects. Without the specific context of an artifact, vital information for study is lost. A Viking coin known to be from a site in Newfoundland that has been dated to the eleventh century says much more about the Viking and North American past than does a coin without provenience. Those who conduct illicit excavations, ripping objects from their context in order to supply the art market, cannot provide well-documented proveniences. Moreover, even when some aspect of the context is known--as is alleged in the case of the antiquities offered for sale by Schultz and his accomplice Jonathan Tokeley-Parry--dealers won't reveal the information for fear that it will bring on prosecution. Thus, false proveniences often are created before the looted objects are offered for sale. In this case, Tokeley-Parry created labels assigning the head of a statue of Amenhotep III, worth about $1 million, to a fictitious Thomas Alcock collection, baked the labels in an oven, and stained them with tea bags so that they looked older.

Rather than bemoan the prosecution of those who deal in illicitly excavated antiquities, museum officials should support efforts to curtail their activities. William Pearlstein, a lawyer for the National Association of Dealers in Ancient, Oriental and Primitive Art, the organization over which Schultz recently presided, regards the prosecution of Schultz as "contrary to the interest of museums, the public, the dealers, and the auction houses." While it may be true that dealers and auction houses find the illicit trade in antiquities to be lucrative, museums and the public surely will be better served when this activity has been halted altogether.

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Nancy C. Wilkie is the president of the Archaeological Institute of America.

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© 2002 by the Archaeological Institute of America
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