FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
Is it legal to buy antiquities?
Yes, provided they are not stolen, looted or faked and you adhere to the various laws governing their sale and distribution, which are set out under the question What rules or laws govern the trade in antiquities? Every country will preserve in public ownership their most important cultural objects but the antiquities we are selling are in most instances already more than amply represented in public collections. Sourcing from a reputable dealer, who is fully conversant with export and other legislation is strongly advised.
Where do you get your material?
Most of the material members source and deal with comes directly from old collections, many of which were formed in previous centuries. These could be collections that were formed by individuals of some standing or by amateur antiquarians with small personal collections that were perhaps accumulated over the years and passed on to family members. Dealers also buy directly from public auction as well as other dealers.
How do you know an object is genuine and not stolen or looted?
Whenever we acquire an object we carry out due diligence to ensure that it is not a fake, has not been stolen or looted and complies with relevant export regulations. Buyers should always purchase antiquities from a reputable dealer who belongs to a trade organisation and will consequently be bound by a strict code of conduct guaranteeing authenticity and good title.
What are the requirements that dealers have to fulfil when buying antiquities?
Dealers must carry out due diligence. Due diligence is the accepted system of checks that trade professionals need to complete to ensure items they acquire are not faked, looted or stolen. Apart from using their own specialist knowledge and ‘eye’, this might include checking the object against a database of stolen items, such as the Art Loss Register, and collating any associated paperwork recording the item’s ownership history. As when buying any item it is important for the customer to receive full details of the transaction including a warranty and receipt of payment. If export licences are needed then the customer should be made aware of these requirements.
What is provenance and why is it so important?
Provenance in this respect simply means the ownership history of a particular item. It is important because the more information we have about an item’s ownership history the more certain we can be about where it came from, and consequently whether it was obtained in questionable circumstances. In turn this allows collectors to judge the legality, morality and the investment potential of an item.
How reliable is provenance?
We find it useful to split provenance into three categories, which have an increasing level of quality:
This is when a dealer gives a rather vague provenance, probably restricted to date and location, for instance ‘collected in the 1930s, Munich private collection’, or such like. This is a weaker form of provenance because there is nothing to back up these kinds of claims. However, there are many valid reasons why this type of provenance may be given: Items may have been dispersed following a collector’s death, no invoices may have been kept, the collector may wish to remain anonymous or the item may have been bought from a secondary dealer who does not wish to disclose the name of the source collector.
Conclusion: This is the most common form of provenance given for lower value items, and buyers may expect it as a minimum. Dealers will often give this kind of provenance in good faith, but it is open to abuse by the unscrupulous. Responsible dealers will not hesitate to provide reference to this information on their invoices, providing some accountability when an item is guaranteed ‘as described’.
This is when a person or collection is stated, such as ‘Howard Carter Collection’. This form of provenance is stronger because it allows a buyer to trace back to a place and time the ownership history of an item – in theory allowing the buyer to check to see if the claims the dealer has made are correct. The weakness of this provenance is that not all collections are well inventoried, so in practice it may be hard to check the dealer’s claims.
Conclusion: This form of provenance is harder to abuse for the reasons already stated and is therefore stronger. Buyers may still wish to ensure such claims are referred to in the invoice for future reference and by way of a guarantee.
This is the strongest form of provenance and consists of evidence of provenance in publications such as scholarly journals, export licences, old invoices and old auction catalogues. This is stronger because it is hard to refute a dealer’s claims when a third party has documented proof of the existence of an object in place and time. The only weakness here is the unlikely event that provenance is faked by an unscrupulous individual. Whilst this is impossible for actual publications, there is the remote possibility that items such as invoices and export licences can be forged.
Conclusion: Provenance of this type will often add significant value to items.
What is the best provenance?
In terms of quality, the obvious answer to this is documentary provenance. However, the issue this question raises is an important one. The best provenance will come down to the particular item you are buying. If you are collecting comparatively cheap ancient coins it is unlikely that these will have been published, or even photographed in auction catalogues, so to expect documentary provenance would be totally unrealistic in the current market. On the other hand, if you are buying an impressive ancient Egyptian sarcophagus of high value, you could reasonably expect an old named provenance to substantiate the legitimacy of the item. The point is that just because an item lacks strong provenance does not mean the item is looted or illegal; a collector will need to assess all of the circumstances when deciding what standard of provenance is reasonable for each particular item.
Why do antiquities have special legal protection?
Ancient artefacts, including ancient coins, owing to their extreme age, are generally found in the ground, unlike other antiques which may be passed down from person to person. This may seem obvious but it is an important fact. Modern archaeologists place great importance on an artefact’s context, that is to say its geographical find spot and association with other objects/finds. Through careful excavation and consideration of an artefact’s context, archaeologists may discern valuable information about how/why/when an object was used, and in so doing can learn more about the people that created that object.
As any visitor to major museums will be aware, most major objects on display have little if any contextual information.
Archaeological norms, as well as the law, have moved on in the years since our major western museums and major collections were formed. Although in the past the authorities in many countries sanctioned the removal and export of artefacts without any form of recording or excavation, this is no longer acceptable.
International and national laws exist to protect objects from opportunistic removal (looting), and the resultant loss of context.
Although a majority of the antiquities circulating on today’s market will not have been recently looted, various levels of legal protection exist to stop illicit objects from entering into and circulating within this market. We aim to provide an overview below.
What rules or laws govern the trade in antiquities?
There is no short answer to this question; each country has reacted to this issue in its own way. However, most countries have been able to agree on some basic principles, which are enshrined in the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property (UNESCO 1970) (https://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0013/001333/133378mo.pdf). The important points are as follows:
The Convention is a piece of international law and therefore governs the relationship between countries rather than the people within those countries. This means it is down to each individual country to decide how to comply with their obligations under the Convention.
The Convention might be seen as a ‘trend setting’ or ‘normative’ piece of law, which, while not directly enforceable against individual persons, creates an environment whereby countries strengthen protection for cultural property.
Important provisions include Article 6(b), which requires countries to control the exportation of cultural property from their territory, and Article 7(b), which requires countries to prohibit the import of cultural property stolen from a museum, or similar institution.
Article 9 allows countries whose cultural property is in jeopardy to call upon other countries for assistance through measures such as export controls. This is the mechanism through which the USA forms bilateral agreements (see below).
Conclusion: The main point to draw from this is that the detail of particular legal protection is left to individual countries. This is apparent when we look at how two major commercial hubs for the antiquities trade have chosen to meet their obligations under the convention: The United States and the United Kingdom.
Are there any cut-off dates I should know about?
This is an area that attracts much debate in the art world. Dates can be important, but placing an undue amount of reliance on certain dates can be misguided. The first point to make is that most laws are not retroactive, so they will only affect actions and events which happen once the law has been passed. So the dates of the aforementioned bilateral agreements will be important because it will only be after the date these agreements came into force that importation of certain objects into the USA is controlled.
The widespread adoption of the UNESCO Convention has however led to talk of a ‘1970 threshold’. This is a policy, initially led by some museums, to use the date of the UNESCO Convention itself as a cut-off point. Under this policy, artefacts without verifiable provenance dating prior to November 17, 1970 should only be acquired by the museum if they have proof of legal exportation from the country of origin.
The 1970 date is an arbitrary cut-off point, which has no legal basis/enforceability.
Collectors should treat this “threshold” in the same way they treat provenance in general – pragmatically and with a view to all the circumstances. Generally speaking, museums that use this date in practice are collecting antiquities of exceptionally high quality and importance. The vast majority of collectors will not be. Just as museums have numerous policy reasons for adopting this cut-off, so the average collector has similarly justifiable reasons for not using it in every circumstance. Nevertheless, collectors at the very top end of the market who may wish to bequeath their collection to a major museum should be mindful of this date when buying.
How do you find a reputable dealer?
We would advise using a member of International Association of Dealers in Ancient Art (IADAA) or a dealer who is a member of another recognised association that abides by a Code of Conduct as rigorous as that of the IADAA such as the British ADA. Their members will have a wealth of expertise and knowledge on the subject. These trade bodies set a strict Code of Conduct by which all members have to abide. You should use your own common sense and be mindful of the fact that there may be illegal antiquities on the market. Pay special attention to an item’s provenance when making the decision to buy.
What documentation is needed for an object?
Any dealer selling you an artefact should provide you with a detailed invoice describing the object and including information as to its age, materials, likely place of origin and giving any known past history of ownership, together with any other relevant information available and a certificate of authenticity. When buying any item it is important for the customer to receive full details of the transaction including a warranty and receipt of payment. If export licences are required then the customer should be made aware of these requirements.The extent of the detail given may be limited because of factors described under the answer to the question What is provenance and why is it so important.
Do the objects need special care?
Any collectable needs a degree of care, but because of their age, materials and fragility, antiquities may often need more specialist care. The major factors that can lead to damage are temperature and humidity changes, strong light – especially direct sunlight, chemical exposure and physical stress.
For most situations a glass or perspex (plexiglass) enclosed cabinet, out of direct sunlight, will provide adequate protection and minimise sudden changes in temperature and humidity. Cabinet lights should not be left on for extended periods, as this will increase the temperature and decrease the humidity. It is advisable to consult the dealer from whom you purchase your artefact as to what special care you should take of it.
Are antiquities a good investment?
Like all other collecting disciplines, values may rise or fall with time, but many antiquities have proved to be excellent investments because they have several of the qualities that most affect value, such as age, rarity and provenance. Having said that, we would always advise buyers to acquire objects primarily because they like them and are happy to live with them.
What are the benefits of buying antiquities for my private collection?
Antiquities have a great number of qualities that enhance the collector’s understanding of, and fascination with, the past. It is rare, indeed, to be able to handle such items or see them close up at any time – for the most part people are only able to view artefacts in museum cabinets. By becoming actively involved as a collector, you also contribute to the wider trade and world of antiquities, including museums and academia, which are inextricably linked in fostering scholarship, research and the preservation and conservation of artefacts. There is also the issue of value, but we only mention that in context of the caveats we set out under the question Are antiquities a good investment?
How does the trade in antiquities help the preservation of cultural heritage that wouldn’t find a place in a museum?
By placing a monetary value on artefacts, more care is shown towards them, they are seen as worthy of preservation. In some countries, historically, ancient sites were robbed for their raw materials. Once it was realised that these objects had value, the destruction often turned to a brisk trade, the governments usually the main beneficiaries. Artefacts were sold, museums were founded. The store-rooms in most museums are still full of objects, some of high monetary value and others of low value. They often do not have the space, staffing or means to exhibit everything in their collections. Private collectors can aid in this preservation by owning and caring for pieces that would otherwise be placed in storage or hidden from public view if kept in a museum. Many dealers nowadays actively aid in preservation by fundraising for museums, by hosting their own private events and lectures and by contributing to research and scholarship. Many private collectors publish their collections as well as lend them to museums and institutions for further research, exchanging ideas and expertise with academics and the public alike.
Why is it okay to sell antiquities that were found a long time ago?
The short answer is that sometime it is and sometimes it isn’t. The age of the object is not the determining factor. Instead, what matters is when it was first acquired and then circulated on the wider market. As opinions changed and adapted, so did the laws in many countries and gradually national and international laws and conventions have led to the reduction of newly found antiquities circulating on the market. Vast numbers of antiquities have been in circulation for many years and some for hundreds of years providing the basis for what can or cannot be sold now. However, the reality is that the original export documentation and often the invoice are no longer available. It is only relatively recently that a fuller understanding of the importance of retaining paperwork has been appreciated. Many countries that at one time permitted the controlled export of antiquities issued a single licence for a crate full of antiquities with only the most basic listing of its contents. Invariably these documents have in the vast majority of cases were never seen as important enough to retain or they have been lost.
Do all antiquities held in museums have a good provenance?
Museums all over the world house artefacts from other countries. These objects portray civilisation and the fruits of our human endeavour, some of which may have been acquired by our forebears at times of colonial expansion, war and expeditions and during periods where there was no, or very little regulation on the acquisition of antiquities. However, it is these objects that form the basis of many museum collections.
How has an object of such great antiquity survived for so long?
The survival of an antiquity sometimes seems remarkable but there are millions of objects that have been buried in the ground or in caves, lost by their owners but have now been found. The location, soil type, humidity etc. will have governed how well the item has been preserved.
Why not just all agree on the UNESCO 1970 cut-off date?
Each country has reacted to this Convention in its own way. The UNESCO convention becomes valid in the year of ratification or acceptance and can NOT be retroactive back to 1970.
Some countries with the year when they have ratified UNESCO 1970; USA: 1983, France: 1997, United Kingdom: 2002, Switzerland: 2003, Germany: 2007, Belgium: 2009, Netherlands: 2009, Luxembourg: 2015.
A number of archaeologically rich countries were enacting their antiquities legislation and export laws long after 1970. For instance: Egypt (1983), Israel (1978), Lebanon (1988) and Spain (1985). An all-encompassing ban on the circulation of antiquities dating back to 1970 does not have sufficient legal basis to make it either a legally binding date or a practical solution. The Handbook of national regulations concerning the export of cultural property (1988) (https://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0011/001191/119126eo.pdf) is one of the most comprehensive documents available for advice and further research.
Isn’t it better to ban trade on items without proper documented provenance than to allow fakes and looted objects to slip through the net?
Documented provenance is simply one part of what constitutes due diligence (see What are the requirements that dealers have to fulfil when buying antiquities?). There are different types of provenance that might be weaker than the documented provenance, such as hearsay provenance (see How reliable is provenance?) but these other types of provenance can be strengthened using additional methods of due diligence. Documented provenance is the strongest type of provenance (for more details on this refer to What is the best provenance?), yet it is reasonable to discern that the cheaper, more frequently found and low-quality artefacts will not have articles published about them or an exhibition history.
Banning the trade in artefacts without documented provenance would not solve the appearance of fakes and looted items. The trade exists because there has been a centuries-long tradition of collecting in the UK as well as abroad. There will always be individuals who will look to obtain antiquities for their collections and it is better to allow an open, regulated market, rather than to let it become a clandestine activity dominated by the unscrupulous.
It would also lead to a further devaluation of the artefacts and to their destruction in the ground unless it is of a precious material, which could be re-used in a different guise. There needs to be a pragmatic approach to the protection of cultural heritage. Outright bans do not work and the criminalisation of the law-abiding does not prevent criminal activity but only serves to erode our democratic freedoms.
Some people think that if collecting antiquities is forbidden, looting will stop, but poor people in source countries will always keep digging for gold, thereby sometimes damaging archaeological sites. Many objects now on the market have been found in the past as “chance finds” during agricultural labour or building activities, they have never been part of a deliberate looting activity and would have been lost to mankind if someone had not paid for them and sold them on.
What is archaeological value or archaeological importance?
“Archaeology, is the study of human activity through the recovery and analysis of material culture. The archaeological record consists of artefacts, architecture, biofacts or ecofacts, and cultural landscapes.” (Wikipedia)
The archaeological record has to be undisturbed in order to provide full archaeological information. A minor object like a small coin or an oil lamp of a distinctive type and make can give valuable information for the dating of a layer and therefore has archaeological value, but only in an undisturbed context. The value is not in the object itself, but in the context within which the object is discovered. Once an object has been removed from its context, for whatever reason, it has lost its value for archaeology. However it still might have aesthetic value, collector value, or any other value one can think of, but no archaeological value. This value was lost forever when it came out of the ground. In a ruling from December 2012 a German high court judge has formulated this as follows:
“Archaeological objects (……..) are only those, that have a value for archaeology (………) Objects, that merely illustrate knowledge about past cultures that has been obtained elsewhere and therefore have no (additional) value for archaeology, are not “archaeological objects” or finds (as meant by the law).”
Original German text:
Archäologische Gegenstände im Sinne der Verordnung (EG) über die Ausfuhr von Kulturgütern (VO Nr. 116/2009) sind nur solche, die einen Wert für die Archäologie haben, also von Menschenhand geschaffene oder bearbeitete Gegenstände, die Erkenntnisse über vergangene Kulturen zu vermitteln vermögen, insbesondere etwa über deren Gebräuche, den damaligen technischen und künstlerischen Entwicklungsstand, politische und gesellschaftliche Strukturen, die Religion und dergleichen mehr. Gegenstände, die anderweit gewonnene Erkenntnisse über vergangene Kulturen allenfalls illustrieren und deshalb für die Archäologie keine Bedeutung haben, sind keine “archäologischen Gegenstände” oder Funde. https://openjur.de/u/616095.html
The IADAA has a robust Code of Conduct and expects its members to conduct their business using the highest standards of due diligence. The IADAA is in regular contact with the authorities and will continue to work hard to ensure that the organisation reflects the high standards expected of it and its members.
We are grateful to the ADA, our British counterpart, for their kind permission to use these FAQ’s, which they formulated.