Antiquities trade

Various nationalist governments and well-intended archaeologists are trying to shut down the worldwide trade in antiquities, but it’s far from clear that declaring governments to be the sole rightful owners of historical relics leads to better conservation or better public understanding of them. As the U.S. government increasingly shows itself willing to enforce foreign states’ claims of ownership in artifacts, collectors in this country are tangled in legal uncertainties and faced with demands that they affirmatively document long-ago provenances, an often impossible task. And some of the “cultural patrimony” subject to demands for repatriation is of distinctly recent vintage: China seeks title to “calligraphy and paintings dating from as recently as 1912”. (Steven Vincent, “Ancient Treasures for Sale”, Reason, Apr.). Inasmuch as governments such as those of China, Cambodia and Afghanistan have themselves been pre-eminent destroyers of their own store of cultural antiquities — the damage done during China’s Cultural Revolution period is incalculable — the dispersal of an ancient culture’s artworks around the world may turn out to be an important safeguard in making sure that in future such episodes at least a portion of the treasure survives the wreck.

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