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Acquiring Antiquity: The Future of Cultural Heritage Collecting and Stewardship in the United States


During the first decade of the twenty-first century, the number of repatriation requests from foreign governments to museums in the United States greatly increased, and several landmark cases involving looted cultural heritage were decided in favor of the source nation. These transactions have been changing how American museums, private collectors, and art dealers acquire cultural heritage material, particularly when it has an archaeological origin. This study examines the history of collecting, discusses how efforts to prohibit the trade in illicit antiquities are affecting the way in which institutions and individuals acquire cultural heritage material, and supports a broader goal of identifying future strategies for collecting and stewardship.

Chinese antiquities that are popular with art collectors are used as a sample group to represent the trade in archaeological material. Three general questions form the cornerstone of this research: (1) What is the impact of the increased use of cultural heritage legislation on the trade in archaeological objects, and can it be quantified? (2) What does the future of collecting look like for American museums and private collectors? How are museums and collectors changing their policies and approaches as a reaction to new legal actions and changing ethics? (3) What role does China play in the protection and consumption of Chinese cultural heritage?

Qualitative data are drawn from interviews with 31 stakeholders. To ground the stakeholders’ concerns in fact-based research; quantitative data are collected from 86 auctions of Chinese antiquities held between 2000 and 2016. Both data sets show that stakeholders interested in acquiring Chinese antiquities are increasingly concerned with provenance, that verifiable provenance increases the value of an object, and that Chinese buyers play a significant role in auctions in the United States.

It will be challenging to curb the demand for archaeological materials, and this study concludes with a discussion of the future of collecting in the United States, outlining current programs and examining new strategies aimed at changing how collectors view antiquities. Three potential approaches for reducing the demand for illicit antiquities are evaluated: government-controlled markets, reproductions, and long-term loans.

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