In the last few weeks, the trickle of news about the illegal trade of ancient artifacts has turned into a flood, threatening to overwhelm many American and European museums. The Italian and now the Greek authorities are rapidly widening the scope of their investigations into numerous artifacts, which, according to them, were illegally excavated and smuggled out of their respective countries. Last Wednesday in Rome, Marion True, the former antiquities curator at the Getty Museum, went on trial on charges of buying illegally excavated artifacts for the museum. The Italians claim that several dozen such artifacts in the Getty collection have to be returned. A couple of weeks ago, Getty officials, in an attempt to placate the Italian authorities, announced that the museum would voluntarily return several other items not even on the list presented by the Italians. The museum had determined through its own internal investigation, that these artifacts had indeed been smuggled out of Italy. So, several unnamed mid-level Getty officials flew to Rome to deliver these items to the Italians personally, as a form of peace offering. (I guess Barry Munitz, with his own legal controversies brewing, didn't dare show up in Italy, even with an olive branch in hand). The Italians responded by saying, "Thank you," but made it clear that they would press on with their legal proceedings anyway, and would continue to pursue the return of the other valuable Getty antiquities in question.
Meanwhile, the director of the Met, Philippe de Montebello, who is also under pressure from Italian authorities to return a number of antiquities from his museum, went to Italy to do his own soft-shoe diplomacy. One would hope that Mr. Montebello, a highly respected figure on the international art scene, might succeed where the Getty representatives so far have failed. After all, there should be some way, agreeable to both parties, to resolve the growing tension between the so-called "source" countries rich in archaeological materials---such as Italy, Greece, Turkey or Egypt---and the wealthy European and American museums with their insatiable appetites for ancient art.
No one is trying to defend illicit trade, but so far the numerous laws and international treaties have failed to stop it. Maybe the utter failure of American Prohibition in the 1920s should teach us a lesson in the futility of attempts in abolishing the Black Market. There are reasonable voices within the international museum community offering different ways of dealing with the issues. Why not legalize the trade of antiquities, and announce amnesty to local farmers and villagers who find artifacts on their land? Instead of selling these excavated items to a middleman for a few bucks, people should have the option of selling it to government officials for the fair market price.
There is a glut of archaeological materials that are inadequately preserved and not even fully inventoried in the museums of many of these "source" countries. For example, the New York Times reported in its November 1st issue, on the scandalous state of affairs in the Egyptian Museum, where hundreds of thousands of uninventoried artifacts have been neglected, if not outright forgotten, for decades in the museum basement. In my opinion, the rampant nationalism of the so-called "source" countries should give way to enlightened internationalism. Let rich countries help to protect archaeological sites and to fund the restoration, study and publication of these artifacts, in exchange for the possibility of legally acquiring these ancient works of art, or at least of getting them on extended loan. After all, ancient art, like ancient history, should be considered a part of our shared human inheritance.