Pity the Poor Middlemen

Brodie, N. (1998), ‘Pity the poor middlemen’, Culture Without Context, (3), 7–9.

The illicit trade in antiquities is clandestine. Transactions are hidden from view and provenance is lost as a result, but the economics of the trade are also obscured and it is not clear what profits are realized over what period of time and who, in financial terms, really benefits. Furthermore, when collectors don their humanitarian mantles to argue that their purchase of antiquities injects money into hard-pressed local economies, it is not possible to assess how much of their revenue does actually trickle down.

Over the years a number of cases of illicit trading have been investigated, usually when a valuable ‘treasure’ has been reclaimed or its sta­tus questioned, and several exchange chains have now been revealed. Although these high-profile cases are not representative of the illicit trade as a whole, they do provide some information about what sums of money change hands and what profit margins exist, and for that reason they are collected together here.