The antiquities trade is the exchange of antiquities and archaeological artifacts from around the world. This trade may be illicit or completely legal. 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. The illicit antiquities trade involves non-scientific extraction that ignores the archaeological and anthropological context from the artifacts.
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. In many countries excavations and exports were prohibited without official licenses already in the 19th century, as for example in the Osmanic Empire. According to the laws of the countries of origin, there can't be a legal trade with archaeological artifact without official papers. However, most national laws still overturn these regulations.
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 (1970) on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property.
Examples of looting of archaeological sites for the black market:
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. In order to face the phenomenon of looting an effective approach is the aerial surveillance whose effectiveness depends on the capability to perform systematic prospections. Nevertheless, it is non practicable in several countries due to military, political restrictions, and for huge areas and difficult environmental settings (desert, rain forest, etc..). In these contexts, space technology could offer a suitable chance as in the case of Peru. In this country an Italian scientific mission directed by Nicola Masini, since 2008 have been using very high resolution satellite data to observe and monitor the phenomeno of 'huaqueros' in some archaeological areas in Southern and Northern Peru.