Monday, September 19, 2011

Europe braces for impact of Greek default

The economic situation in Europe is very serious, and it now appears that Greece may have no realistic option other than to default on its EU financial obligations, and leave the EU. Then Italy, Portugal, Ireland and Spain will come under increasing pressure to do the same to avoid their economies being thrown into the depressed state that has oppressed the Hellenic Republic.

Ironically, both Italy and Greece have a relatively simple (though not necessarily easy) option available to them, which would do much to ease their financial situation. The difficulty in adopting this option would be ideological and political rather than operational.

While neither nation is able to adequately fund protection and conservation of its ancient monuments and operation of its museums, both Greece and Italy hold vast accumulations of ancient artifacts which are neither being displayed in museums nor held in research collections. Such artifacts are in most cases simply being warehoused, often in facilities where climate control and security are less than adequate to ensure their preservation and safety, because there are insufficient curatorial resources available to study or even catalogue them.

These are by any rational definition redundant artifacts. They are doing society no good whatsoever in their present state of incarceration since they can’t be either studied or conserved - because society simply does not have the financial resources to do so. This situation is instead actually doing society harm, because warehousing these antiquities even in their present inadequate facilities costs a great deal of money.

It is past time to bring the private sector into this situation in a rational and constructive manner – to begin a process of placing all truly redundant antiquities in private hands.

If these redundant artifacts were sold at public auction with provenances, the proceeds would be enormous and that would do a great deal to reduce budget deficits these nations are struggling with to manageable levels that would allow them to stay within the EU system, as well as to permit an increase in the budgets of their ministries responsible for protection and conservation of ancient monuments and operation of museums.

Announcement of the formation of a state enterprise to begin an orderly process of inventorying the contents of antiquities warehouses, classifying objects as either important (to be retained) or redundant (thus salable), and finally holding periodic auctions to sell those deemed to be redundant, would have a significant impact on the lack of confidence in financial markets which is now steadily driving the cost of financing the Greek and Italian deficits to insupportable heights.

Radical archaeologists and others sharing the ideological conviction that all ancient artifacts belong in State or institutional custody (who have no solution to the problem of how to pay for that custody) would certainly howl if this were done. It is becoming increasingly clear that society is at the limit of willingness to pay for their ideological fixation.

The laws of economics cannot be evaded by anyone, including governments, and their inexorable judgment is clear: keeping all ancient artifacts in State or institutional custody is a bankrupt approach. It is now time to liquidate it, rationalize State and institutional holdings, and adopt a legal approach toward disposition of discoveries similar to that of the UK, which has proven to be effective in controlling illicit excavation of artifacts.