Just How Big Is the Antiquities Trade?

Calculating the cost of the illicit antiquities market

How big is the antiquities trade? Courtesy NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

The illegal trade of antiquities is often cited as the third-largest illicit market in the world, after only narcotics and weapons. But just how big is the antiquities trade, and why is it important to know the answer? That is the question discussed in a paper published in the journal Antiquity.

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Calculating Cultural Heritage

References to the size of the illegal antiquities trade go back to the 1970s and have been made—and contradicted—by such organizations as the FBI, Interpol, and UNESCO. Although variations exist, the claim is often made that the illegal trade of art in general (or antiquities specifically) is the third largest in the world. It is not known where the claim originated, although it possibly relates to the 1970 UNESCO Convention that standardized many of the ways countries approach the antiquities trade. The claim, however, is baseless. In fact, the total global antiquities trade may only be a few hundred million dollars a year, far less than the 10-billion-dollar amount sometimes cited.

According to the authors of the Antiquity article, a serious danger in this claim is the that it could lead to real-world governmental policy based on unsubstantiated information. However, there is a bigger issue, the fact that the measurement of the antiquities trade in dollars ignores the primary danger of the antiquities trade in the first place: the permanent destruction of archaeological sites and the loss and theft of cultural heritage.

The rise of the illicit antiquities trade has also led to increased and large-scale looting of archaeological sites. This practice destroys archaeological sites and erases much of the important information that archaeological context provides to objects. These are contexts that can never be recovered and, as such, details about the past that are lost forever. In recent years, even some well-known organizations like Hobby Lobby and the Metropolitan Museum of Art have been caught up in the illicit antiquities trade.

While actions by governmental agencies and academics can mitigate some of these issues or even catch antiquities thieves in the process, the sad truth is that as long as there is money to be made, the illicit antiquities trade will likely continue, regardless of whether it is the world’s third largest illegal market or not.

Read more in Bible History Daily:

Archaeological Looting and the Destruction of Cultural Heritage

The Problem with Unprovenanced Objects

All-Access members, read more in the BAS Library:

Magnificent Obsession: The Private World of an Antiquities Collector

A Workable Proposal to Regulate Antiquities Trade

Italy’s Top Antiquities Cops Fight Back

Not a BAS Library or All-Access Member yet? Join today.


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