Sunday, June 22, 2014

A very small special interest

It's estimated that there are only approximately 11,000 archaeologists in the United States.  Most appear to either be employed by the federal government or not for profit educational institutions.  Of this small number, only an infinitesimal few seem to be active in lobbying against private and museum collecting, perhaps 50-100 or so.

No doubt all, or most of these individuals,  really believe in what they are advocating.  But even so, given the small numbers why all the influence?   Could it be because this small group works hand in hand with foreign governments (including most recently the Egyptian military dictatorship) that offer excavation permits?  Or that they are joined at the hip with cronies in both the State Department and in US law enforcement?  Or that their time and efforts are effectively funded by tax or tuition dollars?  Or that not much thought is put into the actual basis for source country claims?  Or that lazy media outlets are all too often ready to take what they say at face value rather than actually check sources?  Or, all of the above?  


Wayne G. Sayles said...


About archaeologists, you ask: Why all the influence? I'm not sure that they really have all that much influence. Yes, there is a lot of mindless media hype, and yes there are archaeological sycophants within bureaucracy and vice-versa, but neither carry much weight outside that surreal landscape. Those of us who follow every whisper within the cultural property realm see a deluge of diatribe and invective that may seem like influence, but does it really touch anyone else like it touches us? Aside from a handful of doyens, I think that their influence is overstated and not nearly as widespread, even within their discipline, as one might be led to believe.

Cultural Property Observer said...

Wayne, perhaps not influence so much as they provide cover for the bureaucracy to do what they want to do anyway. Best, Peter

Ed Snible said...

The policies promoted by the anti-collecting pundits are influential because they fit into a guardian ethical system which resonates well with civil servants. The commercial system seems messy and unworkable to a public unexposed to art markets.

I believe the best way to save heritage is to protect it using the commercial ethical system. For many, this is counter-intuitive. It's even built into our language -- antiquities are often literally described as “priceless” even if there is price tag physically attached, even by educated people.

Thinking about unintended consequences and perverse incentives is difficult. Let me supply an example from outside our interests. The Freakonomics guys are claiming that the Endangered Species Act harms endangered species. The Freakonomics style of reasoning gives most of us a headache.

Cultural Property Observer said...

Thanks Ed. Interesting point. Why don't you elaborate on it further on your own blog when you have time.

Representing the trade associations, I suspect the established dealers would fall into line on a commercially reasonable solution to this mess. The problem is that those demanding they fall into line don't seem particularly interested into what is commercially reasonable for a small business to be asked to do.