Monday, March 20, 2006

Reader Kevin B. emails on the recent story of a Bulgarian Archaeologist who argued for legalization of antiquities dealing:

I am puzzled, though by your attitude toward antiquities markets and the
attitudes of many prominent archaeologists, including Brian Rose, who
was a professor of mine as an undergrad. You ask:

>How can "the state" regulate trade in antiquities when they can't even
stop it now?

But that's just it. You can regulate an open market, but you cannot
kill the black market. Look at the liquor tax. Who bootlegs liquor now
that its legal? If every county in the word made antiquities trading
absolutely illegal (which is not going to happen), you would still have
looting in substantially the same amount. Black markets would support
the looting and the promise of "buried treasure" would still lure

Also this piece on the trade.

I admit that it's an 'attitude' because I have yet to reach any kind of conclusion on the idea. And I have a certain amount of sympathy for this market-based position. However, I hesitate to make too many easy analogies and am unsure as to whether booze is an appropriate one. Alcohol is a commodity that can be manufactured, and the more you manufacture, the lower the costs and the lower the prices. Consequently, people don't make their own booze (or cigarettes) because a corporation can make them cheaper than they can. And it's renewable. And people don't generally regard a case of Jack Daniels as their cultural patrimony.

Artifacts just aren't booze. There are tons of artifacts out there, but value is determined by rarity and whole, relatively unique artifacts really can't be mined or mass produced, unless you want to turn over entire regions to artifact mining companies -- which I doubt will ever occur, because we consider archaeological resources to be rather more significant than bushels of corn or bales of tobacco. The potential is still there for rare, valuable artifacts to be dug up over a weekend by some guys with shovels.

One would also think that if the floodgates were opened and prices did fall, there would still be pent-up demand for artifacts that would either drive prices back up (demand) or at least cause a wholesale rush to get product until the initial demand was satiated.

OTOH, who knows. I would have to be given a good example of a truly analogous resource that has been effectively managed. Gems? Fossils? The art market? Endangered species?

It's a horribly complex issue so the above should be read more as musings than a coherent position one way or the other.