There have been a few highly publicized incidents in the news lately concerning thefts of antiquities from government controlled places. Private collectors and dealers have pounced on these as an opportunity to show how antiquities would be better taken care of in their hands.
Yes, by all means, lets let the private collectors and dealers have them, because we all know that private collections are never robbed, fires and natural disasters never happen to private collectors, artifacts are never damaged in shipping. The difference is, the the theft or fire that happens to the average collector is hardly newsworthy. These publicized instances just give them another excuse to say "See! See! We were right! This would never have happened if that government/museum had released those items to the private sector. We would have taken better care of them!" This is simply not true in many cases. How many private collectors have received an item that has been damaged in shipping? How many private collectors have had fires or floods that have completely ruined their collections? Did these items fare any better in the private sector? At least when an item is kept by a museum or government, its provenance is generally kept as well. We know where it was found, what it was found with, and who had it earlier. The same can't be said for many items held by private collectors. Far too often that information is lost for one reason or another.
And what happens when things are released from the stores? Collectors scramble to buy the nicer pieces, but what happens to the more mundane items found with them? Who should look after those? What use would a museum have for an assemblage of items once the more visually appealing items found with them have been removed?
This is just another spin on the old argument against reporting finds because "It will just sit in a storehouse anyway, I'll take better care of it" Even officials, in response to the theft of 9 paintings from the Mohammad Ali Pasha's palace, have gotten in on this, saying
"This incident shows that Egypt is not ready to have items returned to the country at this point. They can't keep the things they already have safe, so why would major museums risk returning artifacts," a German archaeologist in Cairo told the Middle East Times, on condition of anonymity.
Let's use a hypothetical scenario to refute this argument: Let's say I buy a classic car. I find out that this car was poorly taken care of, left to rust out in a garage. I spend my money restoring it. I then find out that this car was stolen from its previous owner. Do I get to keep this car because I'll take better care of it? NO! It belongs to the rightful owner! Same thing goes for antiquities. Just because you think you will take better care of it doesn't mean you get to keep it. Items that are not reported where required are stolen items, period. If you buy an item without proof of legal acquisition, you run the risk of owning a stolen item. The only way to avoid this is to ask questions of the seller, and require provenance.