Museums and the Market: Passive Facilitation of the Illicit Trade in Antiquities

Donna Yates, Emiline Smith

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterAcademic


This chapter explores the role that museums play in the transnational illicit trade in antiquities. In particular, it considers the ways that museums serve as "Receivers" and "Influencers" within the antiquities market, both driving the market and, at times, acting as a public social conscience working against the illicit trade. As "receivers", museums bring illicit antiquities into their collection either via direct sales or donations, obscuring or ignoring the illicit origins of the object, thus validating the trade with their social cachet. The reasoning behind this is multifaceted, and issues such as organizational culture and funding-related pressures will be discussed. As "influencers", museums set trends among antiquities buyers through blockbuster exhibitions and displays that have a trickle-down effect towards what is looted "on the ground". They also influence how value is determined on the antiquities market through their purchases, their collaboration with antiquities collectors, and their display of privately-held works of dubious provenance. Contrastingly, some museums use their ability to influence buyers and the public to educate against the purchase of illicit antiquities through targeted exhibitions, education of donors, and strict acquisition policies that prioritise not lending legitimacy to the illicit antiquities trade. The ongoing connection between the illicit trade in looted antiquities and museums is more nuanced than museum codes of ethics currently address. If this complexity is not addressed from within cultural institutions, for example through private governance, museums risk directly supporting transnational crime.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationHandbook of Museum Archaeology
EditorsAlice Stevenson
Place of PublicationOxford
PublisherOxford University Press
ISBN (Print)9780198847526
Publication statusPublished - 2022

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