We all have a favorite piece of art in our homes. An heirloom desk from a deceased relative, a cheap trinket from a favorite vacation, a finger painting by a son or daughter, a painting or sculpture by a famous artist, or even a copy of one: each piece holds so many associations, memories, and meanings. These objects are priceless to us, each in its own separate, individual, unique way.
So how can a price be assigned to a “priceless” piece of art? Every day, in auction houses in New York and London, this very act occurs. We give so many different types of values to art and antiquities: the object’s biography and fame of its creator, its significance for art historians, archaeologists, and cultural historians, its aesthetic merit, and finally, its value as an economic commodity. It is this last value, that of an investment, which is glorified in the process of buying and selling. More expensive comes to mean better, more “valuable,” more unique and important.
Archaeologists like to complain about how ancient objects have become “commoditized,” meaning that their economic value has become the preeminent feature for defining their fundamental worth as objects, overwriting their aesthetic or scholarly values. Collectors and dealers counter that granting high monetary values to objects causes people to care more about them. The problem, however, is that not every object is worth the same dollar amount, and the dollar amount is often wholly unrelated to those other values.
The great harm of privileging certain objects over others on the basis of such an arbitrary and essentially meaningless premise as price, from the archaeological perspective, is that it legitimizes the uneven treatment and preservation of antiquities. Almost all archaeologists, museum curators, and collectors agree that preservation is the most important ethical responsibility governing archaeological material. But all too frequently, the determination of what should be preserved and what should not is made on the basis of economic worth. This value judgment has thereby been codified into law. The United States Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979 dictates the criminal penalty for violations relative to the “commercial or archaeological value of the archaeological resources,”(16 U.S.C. 470ee(d)). The 1975 Cultural Property Export and Import Act of Canada grants particular protection to objects worth more than $500. However, the mechanism for establishing such value is not defined in the parameters of these laws. Prices of antiquities are notoriously slippery: an object worth a couple dollars in its country of origin may fetch several hundred at auction in New York or London, and fluctuations in taste over time can drive an object’s price up or down.
Ascribing a dollar amount to “archaeological value” makes even less sense and has no basis in archaeological practice. It assumes that the knowledge to be gained from such an object is finite, definable, and static over time. Think back to that favorite art piece in your own house. How much would you be willing to sell it for? How much would anyone offer to pay for it? Chance are, those two dollar figures are pretty different. That is a rough approximation of saying that the amount paid for an antiquity at auction is the same as its “archaeological value,” or worth as a piece of data to inform our knowledge about the past.
More and more, objects are becoming recognized for values beyond that of money. The looting of the Baghdad Museum and archaeological sites in Iraq after the US invasion in 2003 has raised public awareness of the scientific methods employed by archaeologists, who see artifacts as a scientific data set. For a graduate student like me, where objects are found, what they look like, what materials they are made from, and so on are all important questions to my research. Destruction of archaeological sites through looting is the equivalent of vandalism of a research laboratory, except that things stolen from the ground, unlike scientific experiments, are completely irreplaceable and unable to be reproduced. Moreover, my data can be legally bought, sold, and owned in the United States and many other countries, but scientists have the ideological and legal protection of patents and artists have copyright. Should my “archaeological” value necessarily be privileged over the economic, the personal, or the aesthetic values of an object? Perhaps not, but neither should it be diminished for sake of the others. And that is precisely what the current system does.
(me, the blogger, again) I'm not particularly thrilled with the end, but it's after 9:00 and I have yet to eat dinner, so I'm calling it quits for the time being.
You know, it's pretty handy when I can pass off other work as a blog post! It bypasses that whole I'm-too-busy-to-blog thing.