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How to Remove the Curse of the Outcast Artifact

Last week NY Times ran a story about collectors who bought antiquities in good faith and got stock between a rock and a hard place, unable to return their purchases to the market place. It was entitled “The Curse of the Outcast Artifact.” Those who did not think to ask about provenance of the beautiful foreign objects they were buying in hopes of selling or donating them later and those knowingly purchasing looted cultural heritage are now in the same situation. They are stuck with their acquisitions. Museums are increasingly rejecting donations of art objects and artifacts lacking clear documentation of their origin and exportation. At the same time auction houses are applying more stringent policies before they agree to include objects in sales and catalogs. Even if a given object was purchased at auction in the 1980s and 90s, today the same auction house may easily decline to take it back on consignment. The mores did not change overnight or without stimulation from the law enforcement but collectors who bought their artifacts decades ago are the ones at a loss. The same question keeps popping up “What do we do with these objects?”

In short “[a]cross the country measures taken to curb the trade in looted artifacts are making it more difficult for collectors of antiquities to donate, or sell, the cultural treasures that fill their homes, display cases and storage units.”  The trend is a warning to the modern-day looters and dealers; however, one cannot help but feel sorry for the ‘cursed’ artifacts and for those who got stock with them. While the United States government gives a tax break to collectors who donate to national institutions, there is no incentive for a US citizen to donate, present or simply return an object to the country from where it arrived decades ago. Most of the objects in question are expensive. Of course, the argument against assisting collectors with their dilemma is simple — they risked by purchasing these objects and should pay the bill. After all, if somebody purchases a fake after statue of limitation runs is out of luck and and out of money. Still, by assisting collectors to dispose of their holdings in a palatable fashion may expedite return of valuable artifacts to the general public.

What is the right thing to do for a collector in this state of limbo? Keep the object and pass it to heirs to enjoy and decide? Return the object to the government of the country where he or she thinks it originated? Identify a museum abroad and ship at own cost the statute or sarcophagus back to its supposed place of origin? What if the collector is mistaken and the objects ends up in a wrong  country? 

Earlier this summer, we wrote about a WikiLoot concept designed to identify origins of orphaned antiquities by use of crowd-sourcing. How about removing the curse and rehabilitating the ‘cursed’ artifacts? Perhaps it is time to consider creating a model, which would facilitate return of ‘cursed’ objects with guidance of scholars and Import/Export authorities.  Funding could come from the general public; and/or from dealers and auction houses that sold these objects in the first place; museums, in exchange for a write to display objects pending their return; and/or interested governments and collectors who wish to dispose of their imprudent purchases.