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A plea for fair & equal treatment of cultural property

Dr Kwame Opoku responds to this article in Culture Kiosque [1] reviewing James Cuno’s book.

Culture Kiosque [2]

By Dr. Kwame Opoku

NEW YORK, 21 AUGUST 2008 — Dr. Kwame Opoku, a retired legal adviser in Vienna, Austria, responds to Culturekiosque contributor Alan Behr’s recent review of James Cuno’s new book, “Who Owns Antiquity? Museums and the Battle over Our Ancient Heritage” Princeton University Press).

In an article entitled, “A Humanist Plea for Free-ranging Antiquities,” (1) Alan Behr, a New York lawyer, praises James Cuno’s book, Who Owns Antiquity? Everyone is entitled to his or her opinion, but surely we must try to base our opinions both on facts and also on a broader understanding of the issue with which we are dealing with. It seems to me that Behr has based his views on a very narrow and false understanding of the issue at the center of the debate generated by Cuno’s book. He seems to think the debate is between those who would allow free movement of antiquities and those who would restrict such a free movement in the name of nationalism and cultural purity. He sees on the one hand, “the museums that, like bees ranging over a broad field, pollinate the world with the art, history and culture of its constituent regions. The Elgin Marbles were carved in Athens and the Rosetta Stone was found in Egypt, but they are now displayed at the British Museum, in London. The Pergamon Altar was built by the Greeks, removed from what is now Turkey and is on view in Berlin.” He immediately supports this side.

On the other hand he sees, summarizing Cuno,

…”nationalist retentionist cultural property laws” that effectively prohibit the export from modern countries of anything of artistic or cultural importance found within their borders — regardless of whether those nations or their inhabitants have any affinity to the makers of the antiquities other than to have inhabited the same space at a different time.”

Behr recognizes that Cuno’s book is a brief for one side but he thinks it is a very good one:

“Cano has done a fine job. As in many briefs, Cuno makes his key points more than once and perhaps too often, but they are points worth making: that all consequential culture becomes international, and all culture should therefore be shared with the world, not hoarded for reasons of skewed nationalism (or out of desire for tourism revenues) in the places where artifacts were made or just happened to have been dug up.”

Behr follows his praise of Cuno with attacks on “nationalist retentionist cultural property laws.” According to Behr, “The most telling part of Cuno’s thesis is his warning that the impulse to hoard antiquity is related to the perils of excessive nationalism.” He goes on to make this astonishing statement: “Although Cuno is too gracious to drill his argument through the next level — that the final stop on the line to nationalism is fascism and that the result of ethnic and religious purity is all too often persecution and worse — the implications cannot be ignored”. Behr quotes Kwame Anthony Appiah (“Cultural purity is an oxymoron”) and states further, apparently summarizing Cuno’s views, that “Cuno calls for an expansive view by which nations understand that all countries are built and maintained with foreign influences, and that the world’s store of antiquities needs to be shared so that that process can continue. It is that enduring humanist message, more than the law and the politics recounted by Cuno, that makes his book compelling.”

The criticisms of Cuno’s basic arguments have been amply discussed already in various places and I would not repeat them all here. (2) I would, however, like to comment on some of the points raised by Alan Behr’s article.

The basic issue is not between those who would permit free movement of cultural goods and those who would restrict this movement, as presented by Behr. The basic issue is between those who support acquisition of artifacts — including looted artifacts and objects with no provenance, no clear history — and those who believe museums and individuals should not acquire objects lacking a clear and unassailable provenance.

The first group does not accept that museums, by purchasing objects known to be or suspected to have been looted, support illicit traffic in antiquities. Neither do they think that government control reduces the illicit traffic. The second group considers the purchase of unprovenanced objects as support for the illicit traffic, and they support legislation instituting control of exports and import. They argue that by taking objects out of their context, we lose forever the information that could have been obtained through careful excavation by archaeologists.

The first group does not see much use in the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, whereas the second group supports the Convention.

It is always amusing to hear U.S. Americans and other Western Europeans, such as the British, Germans and the French, accuse others of nationalism. What has been happening in the history of mankind from the fourteenth century to today? Has the world not been basically moved by the nationalism of the British, French, Germans and Portuguese? What was the whole colonial history about if not the working out of the various European nationalisms? Have the U.S. Americans not been controlling much of the history of the last hundred or so years in the pursuit of their national interest, sometimes presented as pursuit of liberty?

How can Behr accuse those seeking recovery of their property of nationalism? What about those holding on to stolen or illegally acquired property? Are the Greeks more nationalistic than the British simply because the Greeks are seeking the return of their stolen cultural property — the Parthenon Marbles — and the British are refusing to return them?

Behr, following Cuno, puts all those who support recovery of cultural property in the category of nationalist retentionists. For example, he does not seem to realize that the Greeks have the support of many — including British groups — whose stance can hardly be called nationalistic.

It is rather strange that Behr seems to want to attribute to those seeking recovery of their cultural objects some kind of unsavory obsession with cultural purity. When the Greeks claim the return of the Parthenon Marbles, or the Nigerians claim the Benin Bronzes , or the Egyptians the return of Nefertiti’s bust or the Rosetta Stone, they do not claim on the basis of any cultural purity but on the undisputed fact that these objects were stolen and/or illegally exported from their countries. Behr is trying to mystify a clear issue by introducing a dramatic and distracting element.

Behr tells us that the penultimate stop on the journey to nationalism is fascism. To whom is he really addressing this warning? To the British, French, Germans, Portuguese and U.S. Americans who, in the pursuit of national interest, have sailed the oceans, conquering peoples in Asia, Africa and America, subjecting them to slavery and colonial hegemony if not outright massacre? No. He is addressing this to the Greeks, Italians, Egyptians and Nigerians and others in Africa and Asia who are making claims for the repatriation of their looted treasures. What does Behr mean by skewed nationalism? Does it occur also in the U.S. and Europe or only in the countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America that are demanding the return of stolen cultural objects? Who invented fascism? Should there not be some proportionality in all this? In which countries do we still have fascists groups operating and agitating openly for the elimination of other ethnic groups?

Who has been introducing an ethnic element into the whole discussion on cultural property? Certainly not the “retentionist nationalists” who seek redress in the name of their States. No, it is their opponents, such as Cuno and Behr, who do not tire to point out:

So we have Egypt — a country both Arab and Muslim — claiming national ownership of all antiquities from the age of the Pharaohs, and China claiming rights to works by ancient populations that weren’t even Chinese, such as the Uighurs of the province of Xinjiang, who were a mix of Mongol and Indo-European peoples.

Cuno points out that the present Egyptians do not eat the same food as ancient Egyptians, commenting further on their religion, clothes etc. Is this the humanist approach that Behr is trying to support by introducing the subject of religious and racial differences?

We might all agree with Behr that “the world’s store of antiquities needs to be shared.” Was this really the message of Cuno? But who is not sharing “the world’s store of antiquities?” Are the British Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Louvre, the Musée du Quai Branly and Berlin’s Ethnologisches Museum sharing or ready to share? And who is hoarding? Those who have few objects and are requesting the return of stolen items? Or those who have so much that objects are more likely to be stored than displayed?

Behr, like many Westerners who write on cultural matters, does not seem to be aware of his Eurocentric perspective. He worries “I used to be able to take a ten-minute walk to The Metropolitan Museum to see the Euphronios krater, one of the finest surviving bowls of classical Greece, but I can’t do that anymore because it was packed off — not to Greece, but to Italy”.

Behr’s focus is, understandably, New York. But can he think of others outside that city? Others outside Berlin, Chicago, Paris, London? Those in Africa, Asia and Latin America, who would also like to have their cultural treasures close to them; who would prefer not to have to cross oceans to gaze in wonder at the products of their own cultures — the Benin bronzes, the bust of Nefertiti, the Rosetta stone? This is admittedly hard for those who have been brought up to believe that they are the center of the world and that the rest of mankind should come to them if they want to see anything worthwhile, including their own cultural objects. The best African art is still to be found in London, Paris, New York or Berlin and not in Lagos, Accra Bamako, Nairobi or Yaoundé. Is there not something wrong here? But is it too much to ask these Westerners to make an intellectual effort to understand the position and feelings of peoples from Africa, Asia and Latin America? Cuno’s views have no room for those outside the western world — indeed outside places such as, New York, Berlin, Chicago, Paris and London.

We should also note Behr’s swipe at hoarding cultural objects for the sake of collecting revenues from tourism: “out of desire for tourism revenues in the places where artifacts were made or just happened to have been dug up.” This is really an interesting comment. Why does the British Museum keep the Rosetta Stone, the Parthenon/Elgin Marbles, the Benin bronzes as well as several other objects from Africa, Asia and the Americas? Why does the Berlin’s Altes Museum keep the bust of Nefertiti? Do the revenues from tourism have nothing to do with the resistance of the British Museum and the Berlin Museum? Why and how have museums become popular these days? Does this have nothing to do with the masses of tourists who visit museums and generate funds for either these institutions or for their countries? One should read the reports on the museums. Why is it acceptable for the French, British, Germans and Americans to derive funds from the display of stolen objects, and unacceptably mercenary for the Nigerians, Egyptians, Greeks, Italians and others to want the same opportunity? What a strange world are we in. What kind of humanism is this?

It is remarkable that Alan Behr, a lawyer who practices intellectual property law in a firm involved in matters concerning international art repatriation, does not say anything about the 1970 UNESCO Convention or about the illicit trade in antiquities. He does not seem to be interested in the objections the archaeologists have against Cuno and others for their support, however indirect, to unprovenanced acquisitions. A practicing lawyer should give us some insight from his practice. He is no doubt aware of the new rules on acquisition introduced by the AAMD (Association of Art Museum Directors) and those of the AAM (American Association of Museums). (3) It may be interesting to mention that Behr writes in support of Cuno’s views just a few days after Cuno’s own institution, the Art Institute of Chicago, has distanced itself from the views expressed in Who Owns Antiquity? (4)

I have assumed that humanism, however defined, involves an ability and willingness to determine issues on the basis of universal human qualities, and hence on the virtues of equality and fairness. Surely the ability to put one’s self in the place of the other is an ingredient of humanism. Can one be Eurocentric and at the same time a humanist? Can one accept that the British, French, Germans and American attract thousands of tourists to their countries partly because of African, Asian and Latin American objects they have, while denying the same right to others? What kind of humanism does Alan Behr support? One that allows the Americans and the British to benefit from the cultural objects of Africans and Asians but sees the seeds of nationalism and fascism the moment Africans and Asians start demanding the return of their stolen cultural treasures?

(1) Culturekiosque: Art and Archaeology

(2) “Do Present-day Egyptians Eat the Same Food as Tuthankhamun?” Review of James Cuno’s Who Owns Antiquity? http://www.museum-security.org.html
Reviews of Who Owns Antiquity? http://lootingmatters.blogspot.com

(3) http://www.aam-us.org/login.cfm

(4) “The Art Institute of Chicago Distances itself from the Controversial
Book of its Director, James Cuno, Who Owns Antiquity?”