A fairly widely held and longstanding view argues that there is no place for trade in, and private ownership of, antiquities. The only place for them is – at best – in situ at their place of origin or – not quite so good – in a museum.

The archaeologists, academics and others who hold this view see no natural link between themselves and the world of commerce. The trade merely blights pure scholarship and is all about take and no give, they believe; it should be stopped or, at the very least, highly discouraged and certainly frowned upon.

While we respect their views, there is a long tradition of trade and the ADA argues that a legitimate trade controlled by rigorous codes of conduct has its place in the wider field of antiquities and should not simply be seen in isolation.

After all, responsible collectors regard themselves as no more than the temporary curators of ancient objects. It is private and scholarly enterprise that has vastly contributed to bringing into being the museums, national and local, which are a glory of most cultures. Just think of Sir Hans Sloane who had collected over 71,000 objects by the time of his death in 1753. His collection was bequeathed to the nation and it became the founding collection of the British Museum.

A symbiotic relationship has flourished between scholarship and private enterprise in the world of antiquities for centuries.

Collectors helped found the earliest museums

Even the earliest museums were founded on the patronage of private collectors. Take, for instance, the earliest museum of all that we know about, one formed by the Babylonian princess, Ennigaldi-Nanna, in about 530BC. It was excavated by Sir Leonard Woolley in 1925.

In 1471 Pope Sixtus IV donated Roman sculpture to the People of Rome. The Basilius Amerbach cabinet formed the foundation (1661) of the extant collection which graces the Swiss city of Basel. Ignazio Paterno-Castello, 5th Duke of Biscari, opened the first archaeological museum in his palazzo in Syracuse, Sicily in 1757. It was thanks to the generosity and foresight of Edith Pretty that the British Museum is now able to display one its finest treasures, that of the Sutton Hoo Anglo-Saxon ship burial, without which we would all be the poorer in our knowledge of early English history.

Right on our doorstep we have the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, the oldest continually active purpose-built museum, which opened its doors on May 21, 1683. The core of its original collection came from the horticultural and curiosity collecting Tradescant family via the hands of Elias Ashmole, from whom the institution takes its name. Thus began the rich and enduring tradition of private collectors supporting museums in Britain.

What would we know of Minoan Greek culture, for instance, were it not for the efforts of Arthur Evans (d.1941). Artefacts properly and legally excavated by him now grace the Ashmolean Museum.

Without those collectors past and present acquiring their possessions – often from dealers or auction houses – and the generous bequests that followed, where would these seats of learning be today?

The point of all this is that private individuals contribute enormously to the public ownership and display to those who would be learned.

The value of collecting to scholarship

The trade and the private collector still have much to offer learning, conservation and preservation and have a rich history of contributing to cultural understanding and development, to museums and their collections.

In recent years, the outstanding bequest of the late collector Sir Arthur Gilbert has boosted the holdings of the Victoria & Albert Museum, adding significantly to our understanding of silver and micro-mosaics in particular.

Of course it is not simply museum collections that owe their being to private sponsorship. Private scholarship has also been a major contributor to understanding.

Meanwhile, just as historical and geographical context is all-important to understanding the significance of objects, so it is to understanding the development of scholarship, curatorship and collecting. As time passes, new and unprecedented factors come into play, forcing us to rethink our approach, tighten guidelines and restrict practices. Altering the context of their discovery and excavation, if you like.

While it may be possible to see how one can apply the new set of rules to the excavation and movement of artefacts taking place now, how can we retrospectively insist on the same set of standards for objects that emerged in earlier times under less rigid conditions? The paperwork simply doesn’t exist or, if it does, often does not contain the level of detail required under the new regime since it was not required at the time of issue. One has only to inspect examples of the export licences the Egyptian government issued a quarter of a century ago to appreciate this. What was good enough for officialdom in the country of origin then would prove unacceptable now, but it was their standards by which the international trade operated.

Should this irrevocably blight what was legally and ethically excavated and traded all those years ago? Many say yes, but this seems unduly oppressive. Should museums return to benefactors the collections they were once happy to accept only decades ago? This is not a possibility, it is a reality and collectors are reporting this is already happening. Part of the joy of numerous collectors has been to donate or bequeath their collections to museums for the public benefit. With museums returning and rejecting artefacts it now raises the question of who will be the future custodians of these representations of our past? It is a known fact of human nature that more care is afforded to objects deemed to have value, either monetary or prestige, aside from their academic value. If these same objects are in future regarded with little or no value, their pedigree somehow sullied, then how well will they be looked after and by whom?

How do we strike a balance?

How do we balance this position with the need to ensure that ancient works of art are not the result of recent looting and illegal export? If we could answer this, we would all be happy. What should be clearly appreciated, though, is that it is the differing standards applied to the paperwork then and now that is the true source of tensions at the centre of the debate, not conflicting approaches to the historical and cultural importance of the objects themselves, nor the importance of protecting them and the countries and peoples from which they emerge. Here, happily, the trade and academe can agree. More should be made of this accord.

The Treasure Act 1996, too, has done much to improve matters in recent years. It is very fair and works well.

Striking a balance between public and private ownership is also important. The recent crisis facing the academic Wedgwood collection is a good case in point. A unique reference archive of material explaining the history and manufacturing methods of the great firm of Wedgwood, its future came under grave threat as the result of a peculiar and obscure legal anomaly that left it exposed as the single greatest asset in relation to claims based on the company’s pension fund.

Fortunately the Government and common sense intervened and its future as a single collection of artefacts is now safe. However, no one argues that its importance as such should exclude the private ownership of other pieces of Wedgwood pottery. In fact, it is self evident that encouraging wider collecting of this material will only increase scholarship, interest in and understanding of the central reference collection. This is far more likely to guarantee the continuing status and protection of the reference collection; a ban on private collecting or trade would inevitably lead to a waning of interest and scholarship and the eventual irrelevance of the museum’s holding. What price its future then?

What this tells us is that a lively and active trade and collecting community is vital to the lifeblood of any field of study relating to historical objects.

Trade can help future-proof the study of archaeology

In Egyptian terms, while no one would expect to be able to trade in the treasures of Tutankhamun, a scarab exported under culturally acceptable and easily administered rules does no harm to Egyptology – indeed, it could benefit it if it sparks a child’s imagination and leads them into the world of archaeology. A case of future-proofing par excellence.

We must also take care when considering modern claims over ancient rights. Over time national boundaries change. For example, the Greeks are very sensitive that classical Greek antiquities remain in their country. However, not all ancient Greek art was created within the Greek borders of today. Their ancient culture spread much wider than that. Many works of art that are now catalogued as ‘Greek’, although culturally so were made anywhere between what is now Turkey and the west Mediterranean.

In the more general world of art and antiques, the long-established export rules in Italy, designed to protect its cultural treasures, have been so draconian as to all but kill off its international market, even for the least interesting and significant examples of its art. Waking up to this at long last, the Italian government is now considering relaxing the law for lesser works. While still protecting the treasures, this would not only help its market and revenues, but would undoubtedly foster wider international interest in these lesser artists and the world from which they came.

Conflict throughout Western Asia today also forces us to consider the safety of artefacts. The destruction of the Bamiyan sculptures by the Taliban in 2001 does not argue for the retention of all great art on its native heath. Preserving ancient art exposed to such threats must be the priority for the future, but how best to do it?

Syria is in chaos and the usual controls have broken down. However, as Professor Sir John Boardman, Emeritus of Oxford University, argues, we all have a responsibility to prevent looting and smuggling, including those nations from whom artefacts are removed. Article 5 of the 1970 UNESCO Convention puts the primary burden on the country of origin. As the Convention summarises: “It is essential for every State to become increasingly alive to the moral obligations to respect its own cultural heritage and that of all nations.”

In conclusion then, we must protect cultural heritage wherever it lies and we must take especial care of it in conflict zones. However, in fulfilling this solemn obligation, we must take care not to ignore one aspect of public interest entirely as we pursue another. Otherwise we risk sowing the seeds of future cultural negligence by cutting off the very source and lifeblood of scholarship and interest. As the leading art law counsel William Pearlstein says: “…museums cannot perform their obligations to research, conserve, and exhibit artworks without a vigorous art market.”

Richard Falkiner