The Lure of Ancient Artifacts

By Morag M. Kersel
Department of Anthropology
DePaul University
November 2011

Artifacts collected from the Holy Land often tell us more about the collectors and the current collecting climate than the Iron or Bronze Age. Figurines and pots with no associated archaeological findspot often reveal very little, but when purchased in the marketplace we may gain insights into why people collect ancient artifacts. Why would someone want an object possibly discarded as garbage? Why do people need more than one object if it simply serves as a reminder of a trip, a past event, or a person? Collecting is a curious activity, eluding a particular definition as to who does it, why, or even what constitutes a collection. Non-essential to human existence in the physical sense, collecting is so widespread that it must satisfy some part of the human consciousness. Many collectors of Near Eastern material echo the rationales for early archaeological practice in the region – a desire to establish a connection to the land and the past through the material remains. Collectors attempt to recreate history through the purchase of artifacts.

Encouraging looting? Antiquities for sale in a licensed shop, Old City Jerusalem.
Encouraging looting? Antiquities for sale
in a licensed shop, Old City Jerusalem.

At the most fundamental level collecting is about accumulation – but the reasons why people collect range from the financial, psychological, or sociological, to the aesthetic, cultural and national. To some it may be sheer possessiveness, an unquenchable thirst. To others it is the thrill of discovery, or the powerful emotional experience of owning an object that “speaks” to them. For some, the act of purchasing an artifact in the marketplace conveys dominance over travel, leaving their comfort zones for destinations and adventures unknown. The purchased antiquity signifies conquest over a distant land.

An antiquities dealer's license, issued by the Israel Antiquities Authority.
An antiquities dealer's license, issued by the
Israel Antiquities Authority.

In the Near East, low-end consumers, typically tourists, students and religious pilgrims want to leave with a small, rather inexpensive memento or gift of their trip. To many believers, artifacts from the Holy Land are God’s handiwork, possibly even held by Jesus. For many collectors the desire to authenticate biblical narratives is a primary motivating force behind their collecting practices. Perhaps it is this longing for the biblical world that has resulted in modern forgeries, which contain reference to famous biblical events and figures. While conducting research into the trade in antiquities I witnessed an encounter between a tourist and a dealer. The tourist wanted something “from the year zero”. The dealer responded “Do you mean from the time of Jesus?” “Yes, the time of Jesus” replied the tourist, “I have $500 dollars and I want something from the time of Jesus to take back to Australia as a present for some friends.” The tourist left with a small bronze Byzantine cross, a figurine head from the Persian period, and a Roman coin for $500, but never asked about the archaeological findspot or for an export license – they only wanted to ensure that the artifacts were from the time of Jesus.

Biblical artifacts are also of great appeal to high-end consumers such as wealthy individuals, museums, and educational institutions willing to make large financial investments for the highest quality pieces representative of a particular period and place. High-end consumer Elie Borowski, whose collection now forms the basis of the Bible Lands Museum, sought artifacts which illustrate, explain or confirm the narratives or events related to biblical sources. Long time collector, Shlomo Moussaieff collects to prove the authenticity of the Bible. Many of the high-end collectors view themselves as saviors of artifacts for the greater good. This category of collector also often fails (or chooses not) to ask the difficult questions surrounding the archaeological origins of the object of their desire.

Recent articles in popular news magazines (Time, Forbes) and newspapers (Wall Street Journal and the New York Times) extol the virtues of investing in the past. Buying antiquities has become a safe(r) investment than the stock market. Recent sales of Dead Sea Scroll fragments by a family who had “owned” them for decades were compared to a 401(K) program that kicks in as family members need the money. Record breaking purchases of the Guennol Lioness (US $57.2 million) and an Imperial Chinese vase from a Swiss collection (US $22 million) attest to the lure of the ancient not only as mementoes of past trips, past lives and the ancient past, but of potential future profits and retirement “nest eggs”.

Whatever the motivation – financial, faith-based, institutional, individual memento, or simply an objet d’art for the mantle – there is little doubt that the demand contributes to the destruction of the archaeological landscape, theft from museums and religious institutions, and the ongoing loss of knowledge and access to the past. There is direct evidence from Cyprus, Israel, Jordan and Latin America that the demand for artifacts leads to looting and theft. Collectors (high or low-end) nevertheless deny any negative consequences of collecting, often turning a blind eye to the tricky questions surrounding an object’s past history. Sometimes the purchaser is placed in an ominous quandary, lacking sufficient information with which to make an informed acquisition; licensed dealers do not always offer the complete object history and documentation of good title, which should be essential elements of the ethical standards of those who are licensed to trade in antiquities. The best scenario for protecting the archaeological landscape is one where people did not collect artifacts or where they are satisfied with modern replicas of ancient objects. At the very least, collectors, whether tourists or institutions, should refuse to buy antiquities before doing their due diligence, ensuring that the purchase is authorized, that the item was not recently looted and that it can be legally exported from the country of origin. Only in this way will the trade in illegal antiquities diminish.

Comments (2)

Holy Land ancient arts and crafts are beautiful,there are many shops were one can buy ancient holy land items. Unfortunately no one can really tell whats original for real and whats not, even license, issued by the Israel Antiquities Authority can be fraud. This is why I think its much better to purchase a replica, especially if you are not a huge collector.

#1 - Urika - 11/17/2011 - 08:46

".....possibly even held by Jesus." Where has the credibility of anthropology gone? The correct, proven by archeology, name of the real person, Yehoshua (not Jesus) was a Torah observant Jew! What, would it make everyone feel better to hold an antiquity and make-believe it will justify all of their ideas?

#2 - Eliyahu Konn - 11/17/2011 - 14:52

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