Friday, 7 July 2017

The Hobby Lobby Case and the Black Market in Portable Antiquities

Although this is all over the mainstream media, the subject of the Hobby Lobby smuggled antiquities bust is being studiously avoided by the antiquities dealers and collectors. This is not surprising, the practices which got the company into trouble are probably pretty endemic in the antiquities trading world. On the New York Times opinion page, Candida Moss and Joel Baden write: 'Hobby Lobby’s Black-Market Buys Did Real Damage' (Jul 6th 2017).
When we first broke the story of this investigation in 2015, it was suggested to us that this was merely a matter of “incomplete paperwork.” It is now abundantly clear that this was untrue. Yesterday, Steve Green, the president of Hobby Lobby, said in a statement, “We should have exercised more oversight and carefully questioned how the acquisitions were handled.” But even before these purchases, Green and his partners had been given clear guidelines by the antiquities law expert Patty Gerstenblith: “I read them the riot act,” she said. Nevertheless, they proceeded to purchase artifacts of dubious origin from unscrupulous sellers and then import them from Israel and the United Arab Emirates with falsified documentation designed to avoid customs inspection.
The particular legal issue of falsified import papers is merely the tip of a much larger ethical iceberg. The real issue here is the black market in looted antiquities, a market that has loomed beneath the surface of storied museum collections and private holdings for many years, but that became especially visible during the first Iraq War and the period of regional destabilization that followed.
Moss and Baden point out that while Hobby Lobby did not purchase these items from ISIL (as some have alleged), they did participate in and perpetuate the same market from which ISIS profits.
If collectors like the Green family were unwilling to purchase unprovenanced antiquities — items that do not have a clear and clean history of discovery and purchase — the black market would dry up. As long as there are buyers, there will be sellers. It is because collectors like Hobby Lobby are willing to pay a premium and look the other way that looting continues. They dramatically expanded the market for biblical antiquities in the late 2000s. 
This simple and well-attested economic mechanism is what is behind the maxim that 'collectors are the real looters'. However much dealers and their lobbyists may rant and rail against such an idea, it remains the truth.

However much collectors, dealers and others attempt to brush this off as a mere matter of bureaucratic 'incomplete paperwork', it is much more serious:
The issue here goes beyond Hobby Lobby. The black market in illicit antiquities from the Middle East can be traced back to real-world violence and wholesale destruction of cultural heritage. Museums may think that the damage associated with illegal antiquities is in the past by the time an artifact reaches their hands, but this is untrue. As long as the market continues, the damage remains.

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