Sold to the Highest Bidder: Antiquities as Cash Cows

The case of the AIA-St. Louis Society and the Treasure of Harageh

Do museums and educational organizations have the right to sell antiquities from their collections?

Legally—yes, if the sale doesn’t violate any restrictions placed on the objects at the time of the acquisition.

Ethically—well, it depends on whom you ask.


The so-called Treasure of Harageh, once part of the collection of the Archaeological Institute of America, St. Louis Society, Inc. Photo: Bonhams.

This was the question thrown at the St. Louis chapter of the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA) when its board of directors put artifacts from the society’s Egyptian collection up for auction in the fall of 2014.1 The antiquities, part of a tomb group from a series of cemeteries known as Harageh in Egypt, include five stone objects, seven silver cowrie shells, 14 silver mounted shell pendants and 11 jewelry pieces of inlaid silver (one of which is a unique silver jewel shaped like a bee). The tomb belonged to an elite woman and is dated to the reign of Sesostris II of the Twelfth Dynasty of the Middle Kingdom (1897–1878 B.C.E.).

The artifacts had been excavated in 1913–1914 by Reginald Engelbach and Battiscombe Gunn on behalf of the British School of Archaeology in Egypt. The AIA-St. Louis—formally known as the Archaeological Institute of America, St. Louis Society, Inc.—was given the Egyptian artifacts around 1914 in exchange for contributing funds to the excavation at Harageh. Soon after the so-called Treasure of Harageh came into the possession of the AIA-St. Louis, the collection was loaned to what was then the City Art Museum—later renamed the St. Louis Art Museum (SLAM).2

The Treasure of Harageh went on display at SLAM until around 1974, when the wing in which the Egyptian artifacts were housed was closed due to lack of adequate HVAC control. When Sidney Goldstein came to SLAM as assistant director and curator of ancient and Islamic art in 1983, he was charged with overseeing the reinstallation of this wing and the display of the ancient and Islamic collections.

According to Goldstein, around this time he requested that the AIA-St. Louis permanently transfer its Egyptian artifacts to SLAM so that the museum may conserve the objects for display in the new wing. Since the museum was a public institution, the director felt that public money should not be used to conserve objects that were privately owned. Goldstein’s request for transfer of ownership, however, was denied. He made the request again several years later. In a document provided by Goldstein, dated February 16, 1990, the AIA-St. Louis board indicated it was interested in having the Egyptian artifacts conserved for display and would consider raising the funds for such an effort. However, the board declined Goldstein’s request that ownership of the objects be transferred to the museum, stating that “the artifacts are part of the organization’s heritage and assets; they cannot be donated without seriously jeopardizing the future of the organization.”3 The objects were returned to the society because, Goldstein told Bible History Daily, “the museum did not feel that it could, in good conscience, retain these objects and be responsible for their deterioration under its care.”


Ten of the jewelry pieces of inlaid silver from the Treasure of Harageh. Photo: Bonhams.

The Harageh objects were transferred in 1990 to Washington University in St. Louis (WUSTL) and initially stored at the Steinberg Gallery until 2001, when they were moved to storage in the department of art history and archaeology. Art historian Robert Steven Bianchi studied the artifacts and published his research in the Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt and Egyptian Archaeology.4

Two years ago, the artifacts were moved into private storage. Howard Wimmer, secretary of the AIA-St. Louis, told the Associated Press that, after much consideration, the society board members elected to sell the artifacts when the cost of storage became too expensive for the society to pay. He added that the board members were concerned about the conservation of the objects.

According to Susan Rotroff, Classics professor at WUSTL, when the professional members of the society learned of the proposed sale, they were appalled and “did everything they could to stop it.” The board proceeded as planned—after the resignation of the society’s president as well as one board member.

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The Beginning of the Backlash

In September 2014, word that the AIA-St. Louis planned to auction the Treasure of Harageh began to circulate around the web and media outlets. The auction was set for October 2, 2014, at British auction house Bonhams, with the estimated bidding price at $130,000–190,000. News of the auction prompted strong and negative reactions by scholars in the academic community. In an op-ed published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Douglas Boin and Thomas Finan, professors in the department of history at St. Louis University, wrote, “One of the things we adore about our city is that so much of its art and culture are free. Unfortunately, the St. Louis Society of the Archaeological Institute of America has their own ideas about art and culture—and how to profit from it.”


The unique silver jewel in the shape of a bee and inlaid with lapis lazuli, carnelian and glass from the Treasure of Harageh. Photo: Bonhams.

The national Archaeological Institute of America office released a statement expressing its concern over this activity on September 11. According to the statement, “The national office of the AIA was not consulted prior to this decision … We are urgently investigating this matter and are working to find a solution that conforms to our firmly expressed ethical position concerning the curation of ancient artifacts for the public good.” The statement pointed out that the St. Louis Society is a registered nonprofit independent of the national AIA organization.

On October 1, the day before the auction was to take place, AIA executive director Ann Benbow told The Art Newspaper that the AIA had “formally asked the St Louis Society not to go forward with the sale and are awaiting their response.” The auction of the Treasure of Harageh was withdrawn from Bonhams on October 2. The next day, it was announced that the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, with the assistance of Bonhams, bought the collection. The purchase price was not disclosed.

“I applaud the Metropolitan Museum’s foresight in stepping in to resolve this unhappy situation,” Peter Der Manuelian, the Philip J. King Professor of Egyptology at Harvard University and the director of the Semitic Museum, said in an email to Bible History Daily. “While I can appreciate the financial difficulties that come with caring responsibly for collections, selling items sends the wrong message on so many levels.”

The AIA-St. Louis did move forward, however, with its sale of a Middle Kingdom stone headrest from Harageh, which sold for £27,500 ($41,766) at Bonhams on the very day the auction of the Treasure of Harageh was withdrawn. And on November 12, two Maya artifacts from the society’s collections were put up for auction at—where else?—Bonhams.

Shortly after withdrawal of the Treasure of Harageh from Bonhams, the AIA-St. Louis released a statement concerning its activities. The society intended, according to the statement, to use the funds from the sale of the Treasure “to re-establish its ‘Community Archaeology’ program, aimed at encouraging interest in science and archaeology in students 10 to 14 years old.”

Michael Fuller, then-acting president of the AIA-St. Louis, expressed remorse for the society’s actions.

“I personally extended an apology over a telephone call in September to the president of the AIA and vice president for societies of the AIA,” Fuller told Bible History Daily.

The national AIA office released another statement a few days later, on October 8. In the statement, the AIA explained that the organization “believes that it is the responsibility of all to protect and preserve the record of the past for the benefit of people today and in the future. This stance is clearly stated in our public policy documents. Disposing of artifacts through a public sale puts those artifacts at risk of being removed from public access.” The AIA also claimed that the office “made every effort to determine a solution that would enable the objects to remain in St. Louis … [but] the St. Louis Society rejected such an outcome.”

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Legal or Not?

So did the AIA-St. Louis have the right to sell antiquities from its collection? One would have to look at the original documents associated with the donation of the objects.

The St. Louis Society would have every right to sell the artifacts “absent a donor-imposed restriction on transfer or requirement that the objects remain in a public collection,” explained Patty Gerstenblith, director of the Center for Art, Museum and Cultural Heritage Law at DePaul University, to Bible History Daily.

In a joint statement, Alice Stevenson, curator at the UCL Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, and Chris Naunton, director of the Egypt Exploration Society, asserted that the sale violated the terms established by the British School of Archaeology in Egypt (BSAE), which oversaw the excavation: “The regulations of the BSAE stipulate quite explicitly that any antiquities granted to it by the Egyptian authorities were to be distributed to ‘public museums.’ These objects were presented by the AIA St Louis Society to the St Louis Art Museum as a ‘permanent loan’ in this spirit in 1914–15.”


The cosmetic spoon in the shape of an ankh-sign from the Treasure of Harageh. Photo: Bonhams.

In the case of the St. Louis Society, according to Donna Yates, Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research at the University of Glasgow, the grave concern is not one of legality, but one of ethics.

“Selling an object to a private collector removes it from public view and public access,” Yates explained to Bible History Daily. “This, many believe, violates the very purpose of a museum or public collection: to preserve the past for everyone to access. When in a private collection, the once-public object is now likely off limits. The private owner can choose to never let anyone see it. They can choose to smash it.”

Alice Stevenson and Chris Naunton elaborated on the issue in their statement: “Public museums offer the best hope that ancient objects are safeguarded against loss or deterioration to their condition, and that they will remain accessible to scholars and the wider public for study and enjoyment. Objects which are sold on the open market may be transferred to collections which are not required to provide such safeguards, and which have no obligations to make the material they contain accessible.”

Furthermore, the sale of antiquities puts a price tag on what many archaeologists consider priceless.

“For a professional organization of archaeologists or historians or for a museum to sell an artifact sanctions the idea of artifacts as commodities,” Yates continued. “It buys in (literally) to the idea that the material culture of the past should be bought and sold. This is in violation of the spirit of most of these institutions and in violation of the ethical standpoint of most of their members and employees.”

But what good did it do for the collection to have remained in storage for decades? What should the St. Louis Society have done when the board of directors decided they could no longer afford to pay the annual estimated $2,000 to keep the antiquities in storage?

According to Richard Leventhal, executive director of the Penn Cultural Heritage Center at the University of Pennsylvania, the society could have done one of two things: “Give the objects to a public institution—a museum or another AIA chapter who can maintain and preserve the objects; or work with a variety of organizations to identity a way to sell these objects to a museum or other public institution. They might not get absolute top dollar but they would be attempting to maintain the trust associated with their initial acceptance of that object.”

During the annual AIA meeting, held January 8–11, 2015, in New Orleans, Louisiana, the council of the AIA met to discuss the St. Louis Society’s actions. Although only members of the council could vote on matters, the meeting was open to all AIA members. Some non-council members in attendance provided live updates of the council meeting using the social media platform Twitter, offering a glimpse of what was happening in the meeting in real time.5

According to archaeologist Justin Walsh, the AIA planned to change two articles in its constitution and code of conduct to avoid problems in the future concerning the sale of antiquities. The AIA’s current code of ethics forbids its members from participating in “the trade in undocumented antiquities and refrain from activities that enhance the commercial value of such objects.” What about the licit sale of antiquities? As was pointed out in the council meeting by Brian Rose, James B. Pritchard Professor of Archaeology at Penn, the AIA-St. Louis was in violation of article 2.4 of the regulations of the AIA: “Members shall not use the name of the Archaeological Institute of America in connection with or in the furtherance of commercial transactions involving antiquities.”

After statements were made on behalf of the national AIA office and of the St. Louis Society and motions were considered, council members voted to revoke the charter of the St. Louis Society unless the current board of directors resigned by February 1, 2015. The motion passed.

Following the AIA meeting, the St. Louis Society met on January 13 to vote on whether to remove the board. Douglas Boin reported from the meeting that the motion did not pass, with 27 for the removal, 30 against and 4 abstentions. The society confirmed in a statement that a majority of the members rejected this motion.

The AIA-St. Louis board of directors met days before the February 1 deadline, however, and decided to comply with the national AIA office’s terms. Effective January 26, 2015, the entire board resigned and was replaced with an interim board that would serve until new board members are elected at the society’s next annual meeting.

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The Legal Antiquities Market

Will the archaeology community ever think it’s OK to sell antiquities in the legal market? Two recent cases instigated as much backlash—if not more—as that faced by the AIA-St. Louis Society.


An Egyptian statue of a scribe named Sekhemka from the Fifth Dynasty of the Old Kingdom (c. 2400–2300 B.C.E.). Photo: Christie’s Images Ltd. 2014.

In July 2014, the Northampton Borough Council’s sale at Christie’s of an Egyptian statue depicting the scribe Sekhemka fetched £15.76 million ($27 million USD), the most ever paid for an Egyptian artifact. (The world record is even boasted on the Christie’s website.) Consequently, the council’s two museums, the Northampton Museum and Art Gallery and the Abington Park Museum, lost their accreditation with the Arts Council England, which will affect the museums’ ability to apply for arts grants.

To save the city of Detroit in Michigan from bankruptcy, city officials considered selling off artifacts and artworks from the Detroit Institute of Arts’ (DIA) rich collection. Metropolitan Museum of Art director Thomas Campbell commented that doing so would be akin to “a cultural fire sale.” The DIA’s collection was saved in November 2014 when a judge approved a bankruptcy plan of almost $1 billion raised from private and state rescue money.

Echoing a sentiment expressed on the Saving Antiquities for Everyone (SAFE) website, SAFE president Cindy Ho told Bible History Daily, “We don’t believe cultural heritage is an issue to be liquefied and commodified. The deaccession of objects is not a sustainable way to raise funds.”

However, archaeologist Neil Brodie, Senior Research Fellow at the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research, offers this opinion concerning the antiquities market: “I think the sale of antiquities with a properly documented legal provenance is acceptable. I also think, however, that such a legal market would encourage or facilitate an illegal market. Thus it would be desirable to have a regulatory firewall to keep them separate. Whether that would be practical or not I do not know.”

Archaeologist and cultural heritage policy specialist Morag Kersel’s research has demonstrated that in the Middle East, the legal antiquities market indeed encouraged looting and other illicit activities. Her doctoral dissertation on the legal market in Israel found that the increasing demand for artifacts—and the legally sanctioned sale of such objects—actually led to increased looting in Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Territories.6

The clandestine excavation of an archaeological site for profit—looting—removes artifacts from their archaeological context and robs a region of its cultural heritage. Trafficking in antiquities has been compared to other lucrative criminal enterprises, including the drugs and arms trade. The difference, however, is that in the illegal antiquities market, “by passing through a series of markets or portals […] the objects are transformed from illegal to legal; that is, in market parlance, they are laundered.”7

In his Archaeological Views column, BAR author Nathan T. Elkins compares archaeology to a crime scene investigation. When looters remove coins from a site, they take away the “smoking guns,” the definitive evidence. Read more >>

Over 100 countries have signed the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property to combat the illegal trade in cultural property since the convention’s adoption in 1970. With the United States’ ratification of the convention in 1983, the U.S. has agreed to restrict the unauthorized import of archaeological materials from other countries.

But the legal antiquities market continues to thrive. Ancient art and antiquities sales at Bonhams, the AIA-St. Louis’s go-to auction house, totaled £3.5 million (approximately $5.6 million USD) in 2014. In one day—October 1, 2014—Christie’s antiquities sales in London totaled £3.1 million ($5,1 million USD).

So where do we go from here? What practical steps would the academic community recommend in order to protect the world’s cultural heritage?

“I think there is a need for transparency and observance of proper procedures by which the decision to sell objects is made,” said Patty Gerstenblith. “There is also a need for transparency as to how much was realized from the sale and what will be done with the proceeds.”

The issues surrounding the legal antiquities market highlight the tension between archaeologists and others who aim to protect cultural heritage and those who have a stake in the selling or collection of antiquities.

“In order to arrive at a solution to selling antiquities, we first have to figure out why people want to own them,” explained Morag Kersel to Bible History Daily. “Would an excellent replica suffice, or do people really need or want the real thing? Until now much of the research into the trade in antiquities has focused on looters and sellers, but not so much on buyers (individual or institutional). Until we have a better idea of acquisition trends and policies we are not able to move toward a ‘solution.’”


1. Special thanks to Dr. Beth Ann Judas for her comments on this article. All errors are my own.

2. Robert Steven Bianchi, “The Treasure of Harageh,” Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt 49 (2013), p. 19.

3. Sidney Goldstein, pers. comm.

4. Bianchi, “The Treasure of Harageh,” pp. 19–31; Robert Bianchi, “From a tomb at Haragah to Saint Louis, Missouri,” Egyptian Archaeology 43 (2013), pp. 15–16.

5. Chapman University assistant professor Justin Walsh mistakenly referred to AIA-St. Louis acting president Michael Fuller as “Don Fuller” and University of Hawaii at Manoa professor Robert Littman as “Lippman” in his live-tweeting of the AIA council meeting.

6. Morag M. Kersel, A License to Sell: The Antiquities Trade in Israel. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Cambridge (2006).

7. Morag M. Kersel, “From the Ground to the Buyer: A Market Analysis of the Illegal Trade in Antiquities,” in N. Brodie, M.M. Kersel, C. Luke and K. Walker Tubb, eds., Archaeology, Cultural Heritage and the Antiquities Trade (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2006), pp. 188–189.


6 Responses

  1. David Carl says:

    As in everything else, it costs money to preserve the past, and denying this just means more is destroyed. The money to run the museum has to come from somewhere, and ignoring this just raises the cost. Sales are not the prime purpose, but denying them is to weaken any efforts to do whatever is.

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