Don’t Nationalize the Past

Recent decades have seen the rise of a new “antiquities law” in which museums and private collectors have come under legal pressures to hand over (“repatriate”) ancient artifacts and archaeological finds to governments, Indian tribes and other officially constituted bodies, even when those artifacts have been in legitimate collector hands for 100 or more years with no hint of force or fraud. Some advocates frankly advance the view that government should entirely ban the private ownership of antiquities or limit it to authorized nonprofit institutions. The latest victim of the trend are numismatists, as the 1983 Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act authorizes the federal government to restrict importation of some ancient coins based on the expressed wishes of countries that participate in the convention. A federal judge has just rejected a challenge to the law, which – as I argue in a recent op-ed in the Examiner – should not put an end to the controversy.