The Acropolis Museum still awaits the return of the Elgin Marbles, represented by the empty spaces where the removed parts should go. Photo credit: Joanna Farley.
Souvenirs can be a bone of contention amongst travellers. Is it worth it to spare all that space in your bag, or pay overweight fees, for new things? Is that to-die-for necklace really worth the cost of three nights in the hostel? Will your family really appreciate them or be horrifically offended if you don’t come back from your holiday without gifts? Did the person that made this actually get paid a decent wage, or was it made with sweatshop labour? Is this purse made from an endangered species? For many travellers souvenirs are a real ethical, moral, packing, and family-appeasing dilemma.
It can get especially tricky when you’re a vintage girl, and you have to wonder: If I buy this apparently antique item, am I robbing a society of a cultural artefact?
The international antiquities trade has a long and dubious history. During the ‘golden age’ of travel and before, it was quite the thing to bring home a rock off of Rome’s pantheon or purchase a pharaoh’s jewelled scarab at a shop in Cairo. The most famous ‘souvenir’ of all might be ‘Lord Elgin’s Marbles’ – parts of the Athenian Acropolis that were removed by an English explorer back in the early 1800s and have been the cause of many sanctions and arguments between England and Greece about their return ever since. Hundreds of countries throughout the world are in negotiations over the return (or keeping) of cultural artefacts which were removed during colonization, war, or by thoughtless or opportunistic tourists.
As international laws, monument security, travel customs, and import rules have tightened dramatically, it’s become a lot more difficult to manage this type of cultural artefacts removal (intentionally or unintentionally), and the antiques trade has become a regulated industry. Still, a Go Girl should consider multiple ramifications when faced with the opportunity to buy a potentially vintage or antique item abroad.
Consult the law of the land
Many countries have laws that determine what type of vintage or antique items can be removed from the country, usually defined either by the age of the item or the type of item it is. It’s a good idea to study these laws briefly before your trip, especially if you think you might want to bring home a vintage teapot, a Roman coin, some 1800s earrings, or even a dress from the 1950s, as you never know what might be classified as a restricted item.
Consider who’s doing the selling
Searching for a reputable seller – someone who has a license, can arrange for international shipping, and is not a street vendor, and who can tell you the history of the item – is also a good strategy when shopping for antiques. Yes, it will cost you more, but it’s also less likely to run you the risk of winding up in jail.
Calculate the value
Try to find out if the item you’re interested in was mass produced or is incredibly rare or one-of-a-kind, and whether or not it is something everyone would have owned or only the extremely wealthy or politically influential. Is it something that really belongs in a museum versus stuffed in a travel bag for the next three months? Is it made from endangered or potentially toxic (early plastics have a shelf life) materials?
Obviously, any purchase inevitably comes down to personal choice. But much as most travellers agree you shouldn’t leave an ecological imprint on your journeys, perhaps we also shouldn’t remove items that belong in museums, bringing cultural pride and joy to the country’s residents and hundreds of other visiting travellers, from their homes.