Antiquities Coalition Proposes “Pollution Tax” on Art Trade

Factory polluting the air, Bogdangiusca, Wikimedia Commons.

The Antiquities Coalition has published a policy brief proposing a 10% or higher “pollution tax” on legitimate sales of Native American art and antiquities. In 2016, this same organization urged passage of the TAAR Act in Congress. TAAR amended the National Stolen Property Act to turn any cultural item valued over $50, exported at any time, in violation of any source country law, into “stolen property,” regardless of how long it had been in the US, or how many hands it had passed through. Possession or sale of this “stolen property” would be a crime.

The Antiquities Coalition’s latest anti-art collecting campaign is set forth in Policy Brief No. 2, How Can We Fund the Fight Against Antiquities Looting and Trafficking? A “Pollution” Tax on the Antiquities Trade, authored by Dr. Lawrence Rothfield, a professor at the University of Chicago.

The premise of Rothfield’s “pollution tax” (also known as a“Pigovian tax”) is that the trade in ancient international or Native American art, while admittedly legal in the US, is inherently harmful to society as a whole. Therefore, the persons committing the harm should balance the ill effects of their actions by paying money in order to minimize the damage they have created, in the way that toxic polluters pay into a fund for cleanup, or cigarette companies pay into a fund for healthcare costs or other compensation to smokers.

The policy brief appears to find the art trade intrinsically harmful. It acknowledges no compensating benefit to society from the global circulation of art; no value in access or cultural understanding, no merit in appreciation for the skills and artistry of foreign peoples, no intellectual lessons, no historical or political insights to be gained, and certainly no argument that a diverse nation with roots in every country in the world should honor the heritage of all its citizens in its museums. The art trade is bad for you, plain and simple.

Rothfield argues one of the primary benefits of such a tax would be not to raise revenue but to incentivize sellers and buyers to “pollute” less, i.e. to buy and sell less art.

Quoting from the policy brief seems the best way to convey its intention.

“An antiquities tax, tailored to fall more heavily on antiquities with weaker provenance or extremely high prices, and channeled into an antiquities-protection “Superfund” (as was done to clean up toxic chemical sites) or via existing governmental agencies, could provide a sustainable funding stream to pay for more robust monitoring and enforcement efforts against the illicit market and for better site security.”

How would tax be allocated?

“In the best of all possible worlds, the program would allocate its revenues geographically in ways roughly reflecting market demand for various categories of artifacts: if Native American artifacts generated twenty percent of tax revenue and Mesopotamian artifacts thirty percent, for instance, the revenues could be divvied up accordingly for projects focused on protecting Native American or Mesopotamian sites.”

Rothfield lets his fundamental prejudice against any art market show too clearly. He deprecates, then makes conclusory statements contrary to actual evidence:

“Although this kind of levy is sometimes referred to as a “sin tax,” a Pigovian tax is morally neutral. It is not designed to punish those who have committed a sin, or deter those who would sin from doing so…They make no moral judgment—“dealers and collectors are the real looters, and should go to jail”—but instead make an economic judgment —“destruction of archaeological sites by looters occurs because of the activities of the antiquities market, and such destruction can be reduced by making the antiquities market pay the costs of securing sites, fighting international traffickers, and cleaning up the trade.”

He suggests that dealers could mitigate the tax by becoming informers:

“…simply agreeing to report to law enforcement the names of sellers and buyers of antiquities, would help authorities police the market, and could thereby earn the dealer a tax reduction.”

But cannot resist a last jab at the legitimate market:

“Dealers and collectors might well argue that it makes no sense to tax sales of such “clean” goods on Pigovian principles. After all, no social harm, no tax. Of course, very few of the verifiably provenanced artifacts on the market were properly dug up by archaeologists.”

And casts doubt on whether society can bear to live with the art trade after all:

“…for many preservationists, moral repugnance at the very idea of buying and selling antiquities makes any compromise difficult to stomach, even if a carefully regulated market with some inevitable abuses might be an improvement over current conditions. But research shows that repugnance can be lessened or even overcome with sustained discussion.”

Aside from built-in bias and an inability to understand the relationship of mankind to art in general, or to question why modern art is considered good for you and ancient art bad, there are obvious failures and weaknesses in the Rothfield proposal. The policy brief:

  • Proposes an “economic” solution to the problem of looting without any verified economic data.
  • Demands “verifiable provenance” when source countries have never established permitting systems.
  • Does not acknowledge source country indifference and corruption as a cause of continued looting.
  • Repeats unsubstantiated claims of terrorist “strip-mining” of antiquities.
  • Blames high art market sales for very well-provenanced antiquities for incentivizing looting, when the Antiquities Coalition itself widely promoted and propagated myths about a supposed multi-billion dollar trade in looted antiquities that has never existed.

Solutions Not Considered.

Solutions not considered as alternatives to the “pollution tax” (perhaps because they have been recommended by the trade) are to encourage and even help fund permitting systems in source nations that would allow duplicative art and antiquities to be vetted, sold, and tracked with a fee-based digital “passport” to allow documented resale. Source countries could use funds generated for providing this clean, perpetual title for archeological excavation, site protection, documentation and museum-building.

Source countries need to to be pushed to allocate more funds to protect monuments and archaeological sites; neglect and corruption are rampant, and archaeological preservation is at the bottom of most regimes’ to-do lists. (India devotes a whopping 1/800th of its budget to ALL cultural activities by government. Greece has drastically cut funding for archaeological programs and protection.) However, to claim that countries such as Egypt and China cannot cope with petty looters because of the actions of the art market is ridiculous. Egypt is currently spending an estimated 800 million dollars to build the gargantuan Grand Egyptian Museum. Egyptian authorities appear to care much more about stamping out dissent than funding its most needy archaeological and restoration projects. China is no slouch at law enforcement: the idea that looting could take place without local officials’ collusion is ludicrous. Stopping looting starts at home.

Why devote ones energies to punishing people for collecting art, whether through legislation like the TAAR Act or a pollution tax? Art is good for you. Art has been a vehicle for the exchange of ideas and has encouraged a more humanist vision (after all, artists are not generals) for millennia.

At base, Rothfield is promoting a nationalist and exclusive, rather than inclusive, vision of culture that has been condemned again and again by history. History has shown that it’s a bad idea for a nation’s art to be exclusively controlled by the state, whether it is Stalinist Russia or totalitarian Egypt today.

The roots of looting are official indifference, corruption, and the failure of source country governments to care. Why not encourage art source nations to establish a lawful trade that provides financial benefits to archaeology and cultural institutions? This is what was envisioned in the 1970 UNESCO treaty, not a world in which all Greek art is in Greece and all Cambodian art in Cambodia – and neither Greeks nor Cambodians have the opportunity to see each others art.

What is the Antiquities Coalition?

The Antiquities Coalition is a 501(3)(c), registered public charity, which participates in what it describes as a “public-private partnership” with at least one foreign government, that of the Republic of Egypt.  The Antiquities Coalition has created a Task Force Report widely circulated to Congress and the media. Its million dollar plus budget enables it to have its own think tank and research fellows, and to send representatives to participate in virtually every national and international conference on cultural heritage. It has dozens of You Tube videos and a professional publicity, web, twitter and other social media presence. In this author’s opinion, it has been an inveterate opponent of the art trade. Although it claims to oppose only the “illicit trade,” it treats virtually all transfers of ancient or ethnographic art as illegitimate and too clearly exhibits the stomach-churning repugnance at the sale of any antiquity that Rothfield describes above.

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