The antiquities trade is the exchange of antiquities and archaeological artifacts from around the world. This trade may be illicit or completely legal. The illicit antiquities trade involves non-scientific extraction that ignores the archaeological and anthropological context from the artifacts. The legal antiquities trade abide by national regulations, which now universally provides for extraction that allows for the scientific study of the artifacts in order to study the archaeological and anthropological context.
Illicit or Illegal antiquities are those found in illegal or unregulated excavations, and traded covertly. The black market trade of illicit antiquities is supplied by looting and art theft. Artifacts are often those that have been discovered and unearthed at archeological digs and then transported internationally through a middleman to often unsuspecting collectors, museums, antique dealers, and auction houses. The antiquities trade is much more careful in recent years about establishing the provenance of cultural artifacts. Some estimates put annual turnover in billions of US dollars.
It is believed by many archaeologists and cultural heritage lawyers that the circulation, marketing and collectorship of ancient artifacts, the demand that it creates, cause the continuous looting and destruction of archaeological sites around the world. Archaeological artifacts are internationally protected by the Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict and their circulation is prohibited by the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property
Recent trends reveal a large push to repatriate artifacts illicitly extracted and traded on the international market. Such artifacts include those held by museums like the Getty Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The legal trade in antiquities abide by the laws of the countries in which the artifacts originate. These laws establish how the antiquities may be extracted from the ground and the legal process in which artifacts may leave the country.