Cornell International Law Journal


Looting of antiquities, Charitable tax deduction, Unprovenanced antiquities


The tax incentive structure for charitable giving in the United States, as in many other countries, is imperfect. The structure over-incentivizes donations from wealthy individuals, whether those donations are made up of cash or of property. This structure has negative impacts not only domestically, but abroad as well.

By providing an incentive for donations of antiquities to museums— an incentive that was perhaps largely necessitated by the state of American museums in the 19th century— the charitable deduction has not only created a market for antiquities of questionable provenance, but has also created what is potentially a get-out-of-jail free card for those who knowingly purchase antiquities of questionable provenance or fail to conduct their due diligence in determining whether an antiquity’s provenance is genuine.

The international community has largely condemned the looting of archaeological sites and the sale of unprovenanced antiquities. Regardless of whether one subscribes to cultural property nationalism or internationalism, incentivizing the looting of these sites through the tax system is a problem that must be remedied.