About this Project

2014 – 2017

The problem of archaeological looting has long vexed policymakers. But the opacity of the market for illicit antiquities makes it difficult for them to bring looting under control. Even as global demand rises and archaeological sites in war-torn regions are pillaged by terrorist groups, the search for effective policy responses remains hampered by longstanding disagreements. In particular, are legal and illegal market practices mutually dependent or largely unrelated? The Past for Sale project (2014–2017) intervened in this debate by bringing together an unprecedented constellation of researchers, policy leaders, museum curators, buyers and sellers of antiquities—including representatives of the major auction houses—and law-enforcement officials. The group worked to assemble the available empirical research in order to formulate realistic solutions for policymakers across the world.

The three-year project focused initially on clarifying the general features of the illicit antiquities market as well as local variations. Highlights from the first year included a presentation by DePaul University anthropologist Morag Kersel, who is pioneering the use of aerial drone technology to capture real-time observations of archaeological sites in the Middle East before, during, and after looting. A two-day conference brought together a group of ten leading international scholars to compare case studies on looting networks. A workshop followed at the University’s Center in Delhi that focused on the looting of idols from temples and other culturally significant sites in India.

In its second year, the project incorporated input from industry professionals, a rare intervention among scholars working on this issue. The “Dealing with Heritage” conference invited art dealers, collectors, museum directors, and top officials from Christie’s and Sotheby’s to share their views with archaeologists, anthropologists, economists, and legal scholars. Panel discussions on industry perspectives, the legal and regulatory environment, and prospects for policy collaboration sparked heated discussions among participants. The keynote address by Maxwell Anderson, former chair of the Association of Art Museum Directors, reviewed promising approaches to curbing and preventing trafficking. Anderson considered, in particular, the need for transparency, public access, due diligence, and prompt responses to claims of wrongdoing. One outcome of the event was an invitation from the editor of the International Journal of Cultural Property to the Past for Sale research team to guest-edit a special issue devoted to research from the project, forthcoming in 2018.

The project generated new tools to measure illicit markets and new modes of analysis that are scalable and replicable. The concurrent rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) brought archaeological looting to the attention of legislators who had not previously focused on the problem. Addressing the wide variation in estimates of how much ISIS was earning through the sale of looted antiquities, Fiona Greenland convened a group to model the antiquities trade in Iraq and Syria. The resultant MANTIS project, based at the Oriental Institute, used satellite images, archaeological records, and market data to delineate ISIS’s antiquities trade network and estimate the total market value of the objects buried at ISIS-controlled sites. MANTIS research, widely cited in policy circles, served as a corrective to prior estimates and generated a new evidence-based method for determining market values.

The final year of the project focused on synthesizing its conceptual and empirical contributions and articulating new best practices for policy-makers. In the spring of 2017, Kersel and Greenland co-curated a Neubauer Collegium gallery exhibition titled The Past Sold: Case Studies in the Movement of Archaeological Objects. A multimedia display featuring aerial drone footage, photography, maps, archival documents, and Early Bronze Age pots, the exhibition added new dimension and a visual vocabulary to the research project. The exhibition also introduced the project’s findings to a broader public. The opening reception coincided with a capstone conference that included a keynote address by Richard Kurin, a longstanding government leader currently serving as the Smithsonian Institution’s Distinguished Scholar and Ambassador-at-Large.

Although it is too soon to report on the overall impact on cultural policy, the knowledge generated by the Past for Sale project is circulating broadly in academic journals and beginning to influence discussions in Washington. Larry Rothfield and Kurin are exploring the feasibility of lease programs for museums, an important innovation in dealing with black markets. And the Antiquities Coalition, a major advocacy group, has adopted tax recommendations Rothfield detailed in a briefing paper.

“All in all, the Neubauer support—both financial and logistical—has been spectacularly helpful in permitting us to think bigger and evolve our research agenda more easily than has ever been possible with any group grant I’ve been involved with,” Rothfield said.

IMAGE: Louai Behara/Getty Images


Museum of the Bible Puts Spotlight on Stolen Antiquities

November 16, 2017

Morag Kersel, a former Visiting Fellow and member of the Neubauer Collegium's Past for Sale research team, joins NPR's On Point to discuss the opening of the Museum of the Bible and the controversy surrounding illicit artifacts.

Heritage in Peril

August 14, 2017

In this Q&A and podcast with The University of Chicago Magazine, the research team on the Neubauer Collegium Past for Sale project discuss how the looting of antiquities puts our cultural heritage in peril—and what to do about it.

What’s Really Important About the NEA

March 29, 2017

Faculty Fellow Lawrence Rothfield (The Past for Sale) reflects on the importance of the National Endowment for the Arts in this article from the Chicago Reader by Joe Raedle. 


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