I am writing this column in one of my favorite London haunts—the Great Court of the British Museum. I’ve just been to see one of the museum’s most famous and controversial exhibits, the Parthenon Sculptures—also known as the Elgin Marbles. These carvings were removed from the Acropolis in Athens more than 200 years ago by the Earl of Elgin. But while there’s a predictably long-running argument over where the carvings rightfully belong, the trade in antiquities is very much alive today.
This trade is almost inevitable. In a poor country, such as Mali or Cambodia, foreigners are likely to be willing to pay more for artifacts than the locals would. The logic of the market would pull the choicest objects into foreign collections and foreign museums. Many see this as undesirable, and so most countries maintain some form of ban on trading antiquities.
But such bans have some unpleasant side effects. They replace the logic of the market with the logic of the black market, which means that smugglers would try to conceal the locations of new archaeological sites, to erase or forge the historical record surrounding objects, and to excavate and ship objects without the care that could be lavished on an operation that was legal. Beyond these purely archaeological considerations, illegal objects are less likely to end up in the top museums and may be relegated to purely private collections, which is in itself a shame. It’s enough to make an archaeologist weep—and an economist, too.
Michael Kremer, a Harvard economics professor with a track record of inventive ideas, and Tom Wilkening, a graduate student at MIT, published a possible solution earlier this year. Instead of flatly banning the export of antiquities, why not ban their sale but allow them to be rented?
The idea has a simple economic justification. Imagine a Malian sculpture, which is currently worth more to the British Museum than to the government of Mali. But it is possible that Mali will be much wealthier in a few decades than it is today and at that point will want the sculpture back. One of the easiest ways to arrange that pattern of possession is for Mali to lease the object to the British Museum for a few decades.
Beyond that smoothly plausible piece of textbook economics, the messy details also point in favor of leasing arrangements. If a poor country protects its antiquities with a blanket export ban, the government has to find cash to dig up, catalog, and store the things. Sensible governments would have other spending priorities, but that then leaves the artifacts in the ground, where they are difficult to protect from smugglers. A leasing arrangement would mean that an impoverished government could invite the Metropolitan Museum or the British Museum to go to all the trouble of excavating, researching, and protecting the treasures in exchange for, say, the right to exhibit them for 25 years.
Kremer has plenty of experience with clever policy ideas. (He has been at the forefront of a scheme to promote the development of vaccines for diseases of the poor, for example.) He knows that his working paper is just the start of a conversation with the curators and cultural ministries that might make the idea a reality.
But could Kremer’s scheme find an undisputed home for the Elgin Marbles? Perhaps, he muses. The obvious solution would be for the British Museum to acknowledge Greek ownership in exchange for the Greeks allowing the British Museum to keep the Marbles for a few years—or decades—more. All that would remain would be to agree on a price and a length for the lease.
But the Elgin Marbles dispute has so far proved impervious to lots of clever suggestions. I’m not holding my breath, and neither is Michael Kremer.