globalEDGE Blog: Illegal International Trade in Antiquities

Illegal International Trade in Antiquities

“Trade creates wealth”: an age-old saying oft used to break international boundaries for the free exchange of goods, services, currency, and capital. But this age-old saying does not hold true when it comes to the underground economy of old-age empires’ wealth.  Trafficking antiquities not only creates sinkholes in the public goods marketplace, but it also depreciates cultural heritage sights.  Furthermore, these black market deals are exponentially increasing the rate of cultural homogenization by privatizing potential world-heritage commodities.  Why be entrepreneurial with a public good like history?  It is far more meaningful for archeologists, history enthusiasts, and the inquisitive society.  Due to its unauthorized, undisclosed, unregulated, and highly informal, the black market for antiques can only be scratched at surface level but three distinctive vacuums emerge: currency, knowledge, culture.

With a majority of transactions cash-based, empirical studies show increasing activity in the shadow economy raises monetary demand—artificially augmenting the value. Internal revenue systems cannot immediately recognize it, and therefore real monetary value (as seen in labor and output statistics remains stagnant) usually remains stagnant. 

Parallel with this increase in coinage demand is ignorance.  Only through third parties do historians, anthropologists, and nations realize fractions of culture have vanished while future generations will never know what existed.  Intricate trade routes, chemical compositions, agricultural intensification, and the development of urban sprawl are relevant themes revealed researched through ancient dialogue by academics.  How can archetypical patterns be found if there are no means by which to study them? 

The preservation of heritage, difficult enough with western uniformity, is further strained because of antique mismanagement, protection, and apathy by central governments.  While it can be argued that state entities should not be held responsible for a “public goods” because it breeds inefficacy, no state is without at least one ethnic group.  Because the most frequent evidence presented in property/land rights in international courts are ancient artifacts, it is in a government’s best interest to protect indigenous ruins. 

Unfortunately, the structural flaws of the shadow economy hinder man’s greed no less to exploit it to the fullest extent.  Syria, a country punctured with ongoing conflict, has seen the devastation of several ancient sites.  The ruin of Ebla, a Mesopotamian city-state famous for having cuneiform tablets in Sumerian script discussing theology, politics and extensive trade systems, is in high risk of disintegration, materially and intellectually.  Grave sites with figurines, jewelry, ceramics, and offerings are either being littered with bullet shells by bomb raids or looted by peasants for monetary gain.  Vandalism from all directions is shattering history owned by humanity.

Revolutionary chaos seems to be the cousin of plundering.  Egypt, which has been suffering from political and economic turmoil for over two years now, is a thriving illegal antiquity trade center.  With museum artifacts and World Heritage Sites being ransacked, the tourism and academic industries are in threat of failing.  The wealthiest country in terms of monuments and antiques is misplacing its historical and modern identity to wealthy, foreign individuals.  Privatizing art is a danger for posterity.

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