That belongs in a museum! ...Here's my card.
November 2, 2013 4:33 PM   Subscribe

I would like to know more about how, in this day and age, major museums acquire ancient relics that have only recently been discovered. Who are the middlemen involved between someone discovering a cache of artifacts, and said objects ending up at a Smithsonian-level institution? Are there brokers for such things? Museum auctions?

A side-question: when there is a fight over what country owns what relic, (for example an ancient Greek shipwreck discovered in non-Greek waters) where are those relics typically stored until the political issue gets resolved?

Anything you can tell me about the process, and the people involved, would be most helpful. Thanks!
posted by np312 to Society & Culture (13 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I can answer one part of this question: museums regularly bid in normal high-end auctions against other collectors, typically by phone, in a process overseen by the museum's curator. When ownership or rights to an object are in dispute, most major museums will no longer pursue acquisition because they will have repatriation policies or be regulated by repatriation laws. This Wikipedia article sheds some light on the process.
posted by DarlingBri at 4:46 PM on November 2, 2013

PS: Yes, there are also antiquarian dealers. If I dug up an ancient sword on my farm and it was legal for me to sell it, I would probably approach museums through a well-regarded antiquarian dealer acting as my broker to manage private bids. But note that in many places, such objects are illegal to sell; in England they are automatically property of the Crown. This is a very common way for newly found ancient objects to be added to contemporary museum collections as the Crown will frequently gift them. In Scotland the rules differ and are very interesting.
posted by DarlingBri at 4:54 PM on November 2, 2013

You might be interested in the history of the Elgin Marbles
posted by hepta at 4:58 PM on November 2, 2013

Hi, I work in museums. First, I'd ask whether you're thinking of a specific incident, which it might be easier to explain in concrete terms. But if not, I can offer some stuff in general terms.

The acquisition of new archaeological discoveries by museums does not frequently happen any more. It was really common right up until early in the last century, but the post-WWII climate followed by the human rights and cultural awareness revolutions in the 60s and 70s created a lot of change in the legal climate, bother internationally and domestically, that work to discourage if not outright ban trade in antiquities. There have been a lot of famous cases of repatriation of objects deemed to be of cultural patrimony, and more of this being debated about every day.

But to try to cover all the bases in your question, there are some situations that might fall into its range. One major exception to the above is in the case where a museum is leading, or a partner in, an academic archaeological project. This is a lot rarer than it used to be. Museums like the MFA or the Field used to practice like something not far from tomb raiders around the turn of the 20th century, and it was a common agreement for them to mount an archaeology project and just split all the resulting finds between a national museum in the host country, which would negotiate permission, and their home institution. But again, this is so much rarer now, because nations have generally developed bodies of law intended to protect and preserve their own cultural patrimony, and archaeological finds don't leave the nation as easily. It's even often illegal for people outside of an official structure to do their own digs, and even if you dig on your own property, if you unearth human remains or objects potentially sacred or funerary, you are subject to a body of law that directs how they can be disposed of. Today, the world of professional archaeology really advocates leaving stuff in the ground, where it is at least stable, because archaeological deposits are a nonrenewable resource and it is always presumed that future scientific techniques will do a better job than today's of learning from what remains. So the idea now is only to do excavations on sites that are threatened - say, by development or changes in infrastructure. So there's just much less excavation in general. However, there are still a lot of operating archaeological field schools that are usually run by entities like universities, museums, and governments to collect information, and finds do result from those. Typically, before those digs happen, it is already clearly decided what will happen to anything discovered, and generally they go to some kind of public institution where they can remain available to researchers.

If someone just digs something up on their own property, in the US, that is considered to be theirs in the absence of contravening law. If they want to offer it to a museum, normal acquisition policies kick in. U.S. Accredited museums have a collections plan that specifies what they do and don't collect, so the first thing is the person with an old object needs to find a museum that wants their thing. Then, museums also have to have acquisition policies that describe the conditions required for taking an object into the collection. There are guidelines for how to prepare acquisitions policies regarding antiquities. The most important thing you find in these policies is the question of provenance. Because of the world strife of the past century or so, curators are trained to assume that a new antiquity popping up on the market is looted/stolen unless it can be shown otherwise. So if you have a situation like a find on your own property, it is important to document, document, document. Take photos, make dated documents. Have local press out to photograph it if possible and report on it. Have a professor or state archaeological agent come verify it. The burden of proof is on the person offering/selling the archaeological object to establish that it isn't stolen.

Finally, in today's world it's also pretty rare that museums pay for acquisitions. We tend to hear about the big ones, the van Goghs and marble statues, but those are exceptions to the rule. [On preview, DarlingBri is right that museums do review auction catalogs and bid at auctions for objects of interest - just not as often as folks outside the field think we do. It is curators' jobs to know what's out there and what's for sale, but generally they are looking for specific pieces or types to fill a gap in an existing collection, not just 'shopping' in hopes of finding something they'd never known about before). Most museums have a pretty small acquisitions budget. Few American museums at this time are looking to massively grow the ancient-Europe department, and NAGPRA has made American museums more circumspect about adding to their indigenous materials collections - even if that material is North American or Central American, the consciousness about patrimony has been raised. And in general, we're in an age of deaccession (weeding objects out of the museum collection that don't belong) rather than rapid growth, as the true long-term costs of storage, maintenance, conservation, climate control, pest control, etc make themselves felt across the world of museums and their strained budgets. Generally today, people are not looking to add willy-nilly, so collections approaches are tight. So even if you could find a museum that wants an object they themselves didn't excavate under controlled, academic conditions, and it's in their collections plan, and it passes their acquisitions policy, it's often not something they're willing or able to purchase with cash. Instead, usually when things come in they come in as a donation under a deed of gift. Direct purchase from a donor is getting rarer and rarer, because it's also open to the perception of fiscal impropriety. It is much better to deal with a dealer/intermediary than a direct donor who wants to be paid. The intermediary often can also conduct research and lend professional expertise that helps establish provenance.

The simplest form of the process would be: person with object of interest contacts museum, gets in touch with the curator of the relevant department, describes the object. If the curator is interested, she will look at the object, either coming to the person's house, or the person delivering it to the museum. The curator will review the documentation associated with the object to establish provenance, or if documentation is absent, ask the potential donor to assemble it. Then, if the curator is still interested and thinks the provenance looks viable, she will propose the acquisition to a collections committee in the museum, including chief curator and other key research folks, also perhaps some volunteers with subject matter expertise. If they all approve the acquisition, the curator will work with the museum's registrar to arrange for the donor to complete a deed of gift. The registrar is the person tasked with keeping intellectual control over everything that is within the museum's collection. Once the deed of gift is made, the donor delivers the object to the registar, who takes it in and puts it through a registration process including the creation of a catalog record in a database, basic level description, photography, and assignment of temporary storage areas. Then, it's the museum's.
posted by Miko at 5:16 PM on November 2, 2013 [35 favorites]

Roald Dahl's The Mildenhall Treasure is a really well-written narrative about one discovery and what came afterwards. There's a PDF copy on-line here.
posted by kmennie at 5:21 PM on November 2, 2013 [2 favorites]

In the U.S., each state has a historic preservation agency, which is a joint state-federal agency, and is governed jointly by a state historic preservation act (or acts) and the National Historic Preservation Act and the Archaeological Resources Protection Act, and some other assorted laws.

If you, as a U.S. citizen, found a cool artifact on your property, you ideally would google your state historic preservation agency and call the state archaeologist. If you find human remains (or burial goods), you call the cops, who come out and look at them and, if they are more than 100 years old, call the state historic preservation agency, who deal with it. Human remains are always under the state's protection in the U.S., and it's a crime to mess with them or fail to report them.

Anyway, the state archaeologist could tell you, "Hey, cool find!" or "You should call Professor Archaeology at State U if you want to find out more, he studies that stuff" or "Ooooh ... can we come look?" or "We're sending the archaeology squad immediately, your find is state property." If it's legally yours, you can keep it or sell it or donate it or lend it for display. If it is the state's, it will belong to the state museum and they will make arrangements for it to be researched, displayed, or lent to other collections around the world. My husband writes the contracts to lend out artifacts for my state, and it's a pretty regular stream. They were actually just getting some artifacts back from the Smithsonian so they could go back out on loan to a different, private museum, and they whole process got fouled up because the Smithsonian couldn't ship them because of the federal shutdown, and whichever museum was receiving them ended up having to start their exhibition two weeks late. They, in turn, borrow items from other museums and private collections to augment their exhibits. The curators are generally pretty aware of what's out there and who has it, in areas that relate to the museum's holdings.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:04 PM on November 2, 2013

Generally today, people are not looking to add willy-nilly, so collections approaches are tight. So even if you could find a museum that wants an object they themselves didn't excavate under controlled, academic conditions, and it's in their collections plan, and it passes their acquisitions policy, it's often not something they're willing or able to purchase with cash.

As far as acquisitions at most institutions are concerned, this is it, in a nutshell. There are lots and lots of questions and documents (as described by Miko) that need to be posed and gathered between "That belongs in a museum!" and "That belongs in our museum, and you, the person offering it, are doing so legally and under conditions that our increasingly cash-strapped organization, which is the best home for it, can meet."

Regarding the other part of your question, about disputes over patrimony: that can be handled in a wide variety of ways depending on the specific countries or regions involved. Most nations are bound by the protocols outlined in the 1970 UNESCO Convention on cultural property, although different nations ratified it at different times after 1970 and enforcement can be, um, problematic. Journalism and scholarship on this issue has really blown up during the last decade, so if you have a particular place or case in mind, we might be able to recommend material that's more relevant to your specific interests.
posted by Austenite at 6:18 PM on November 2, 2013

The acquisition of new archaeological discoveries by museums does not frequently happen any more.

I think this is country specific, though. Very broadly speaking, if you find it in the ground in Scotland, it's Scotland's, and more than 150 objects from arrowheads to 15th century rings to Bronze Age armlets were found, reported, recovered and allocated to Scottish museums last year. There is a pretty steady rate of finds if you go through their records. There are about 100 museums in Scotland, maybe half of which house collections (as opposed to being sites), and since finds are allocated as locally as possible by default, I would imagine that makes pretty reasonable acquisition odds.
posted by DarlingBri at 8:02 PM on November 2, 2013

What I meant, really, is the active acquisition in which a museum is the pursuer of newly surfaced objects. Being the state or national repository for the things that surface in various ways - accidentally, as byproducts of construction work, etc -- is the norm here, too - but that's a lot different from staffing and funding a 45-person expedition to another place to excavate and bring back objects, which a lot of people think is still going on, and which I wanted to make clear is basically a thing of the past. That type of expedition-to-acquire is really part of another era entirely.

The sort of find you describe represents a pretty tiny margin of any museum's overall acquisition - even in the case you mention, with 150 annual finds and over 100 museums, you're not talking about many individual objects going to any one museum, so it doesn't represent a large piece of any single museum's acquisitions planning. And it behooves a national museum system to distribute this sort of thing, because as I noted, care for objects is a financial burden - especially when, like archaeological objects, they don't come endowed.

But to your broader point, everything about archaeology is country specific outside of the very few international property laws that apply. Each nation handles its material heritage differently.
posted by Miko at 8:08 PM on November 2, 2013

I also think this is true outside of "source" countries, like in the US, but countries with more active archaeological programs and national museums systems do have major and minor finds added all the time, sometimes from joint projects. The Museum of London has an active archaeological unit, and it houses finds from the Portable Antiquities Scheme as well-- it's kind of a hybrid between commercial work and the older model of funding new excavations. The Treasure Act has its limits though; witness the Crosby Garrett helmet, stripped of its context and still owned by an anonymous purchaser even though its slated for temporary display. Harvard/their museums are I think still heavily involved in Sardis, though Turkey is very strict about releasing materials so I think all of it stays on-site or in other Turkish depositories. Turkey does fund departmental observers (I forget the technical term) for all legal digs, though certainly the field school model is the major kind of funding for new site exploration. I think one major difference now is that new sites are often turned into museums/displays in situ or reburied or built over; there isn't the same kind of wholesale cherry-picking of architectural elements or even buildings or mosaics. I don't know how Egypt or other major countries handle dig permissions and funding, though, or China and other countries with considerable unexcavated materials.

As a side note, the US is not especially great with respects to MOUs and the 1970 UNESCO convention-- we have a very patchwork coverage of protection not only for items that end up here but also for American objects sold illegally abroad.

re: shipwrecks-- you might be interested in the legal battle over the Black Swan and Odyssey in the US, though it varies by country, wreck, and waters. Most shipwrecks (and maritime archaeology is still a relatively new and expensive field) are not as contested.

There are a lot of great blogs and resources on museums and patrimony; if you're interested in a particular topic or country, maybe someone can suggest more targeted materials.
posted by jetlagaddict at 8:40 PM on November 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

The Lost Chalice is a good read about this.
posted by judith at 2:24 AM on November 3, 2013

Portland, Maine is home to the Umbrella Cover Museum. Here is the Donations page. disclaimer, The Umbrella Museum is awesome, but tangential to this question.

When there is a fight over what country owns what relic
The Parthenon Sculptures, aka, the Elgin Marbles.

Top 10 Plundered Artifacts - TIME
The real story of the Elgin Marbles - BBC
Elgin Marbles & the Parthenon

posted by theora55 at 7:12 AM on November 3, 2013

If you put jetlagaddict's comments together with mine, one major takeaway is that "middlemen" of the kind requested in the question are just rare - museums and universities try to keep the extraction and disposition of objects out of the market, whenever possible.
posted by Miko at 12:01 PM on November 3, 2013

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