South-Western College Publishing - Economics  
Grave Robbing Dead Easy
Subject Social Costs, Government Intervention
Topic Scarcity, Choice, and Opportunity Costs
Key Words Demand, Profit
News Story

In Peru, pre-Columbian burial grounds are being pillaged by grave robbers in search of artifacts. The robbers sell their finds to traffickers in order to put food on their tables. The traffickers then re-sell the artifacts to collectors--at home and abroad--who seem to have an insatiable demand, making the traffickers a significant profit.

Little is done to stop this. Too few people police the sites. When robbers are caught, they are not generally convicted or they receive a suspended sentence. Buying and selling artifacts is illegal, but the penal code refers only to grave robbers. Traffickers appear to be well connected and thus avoid punishment. Possession of artifacts is not a crime. Ironically, the U.S. is more aggressive in intercepting stolen artifacts, returning them to Peru when found.

Archaeologists complain that knowledge of ancient cultures is lost because the artifacts alone are not informative--it is the artifacts in their context that matters.

(Updated December 1, 1998)

1. a) Draw a diagram of the market for artificats procured through grave robbing. Show the marginal private cost and benefit curves and the equilibrium price and quantity.
  b) Why does grave robbing occur? Consider the news story and refer to the positions of the two curves in your diagram.
2. a) What are the private costs of grave robbing on Peruvian archaeological sites?
  b) What are the social costs of robbing graves?
3. a) On your diagram, draw a curve representing the marginal social costs of artifacts obtained through grave robbing. If account were taken of the social as well as the private marginal costs, what would happen to the equilibrium price and quantity of artifacts gained from grave robbing?
  b) How might the Peruvian government get suppliers of such artifacts to recognize the social costs? Explain your answer.

Source Catherine, Elton, "Underground trade, lax laws help power Peru's grave robbers", St. Petersburg Times, October 23, 1998.

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