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How museums became looters

Sharon Waxman’s book on the looted artefacts filling some of the world’s greatest museums is getting quite a bit of media attention. Its position is almost completely the opposite of that taken by James Cuno [1] in his book published earlier this year. In many ways it could be said that Cuno represents the view of the museums whilst Waxman ‘s view is more closely aligned to that of the general public. In countries such as Britain though, a large amount of the funding for the largest museums comes from tax payers via the government – so surely these institutions should be doing more to reflect what the public expects of them?

New York Times [2]

Art of the Steal
Published: November 7, 2008

Loot is an ugly word. Derived from ­Hindi and Sanskrit, it emerged in British India, where it no doubt proved useful in describing some of the more sordid transactions of empire. In the 20th century, it was applied to Jewish art collections systematically plundered by Hitler and, later, to electronics pilfered from shop windows during the 1992 Los Angeles riots. Most recently — and perhaps most provocatively — it has been wielded against well-to-do American museums whose pristine specimens of ancient civilizations have with shocking frequency turned out to be contraband.

It is this latest application of the term that interests Sharon Waxman in “Loot,” a broad survey of what she calls “the battle over the stolen treasures of the ancient world.” Over the past few years, numerous museums have been confronted with claims that antiquities they have been acquiring were plundered by tomb robbers. Now the countries from which these objects came want them back. And as Waxman observes, they are resorting to increasingly rough tactics — “lawsuits and criminal prosecution, public embarrassment and bare-knuckled threats.” Top-drawer dealers in ancient art have been sentenced to jail, while a prominent American curator has been indicted in Rome. And cowed by sensational accounts of dirty dealings (the Italian trial, now in its third year, features almost pornographic Polaroids of soon-to-be museum objects caked in fresh mud), four leading institutions — the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and the Princeton University Art Museum — have decided to fork over dozens of antiquities to Italy.

How did museums become looters? To Waxman, a former culture reporter for The Washington Post and The New York Times, the problem is part of a larger battle about history, in which “once-colonized nations” are seeking to reclaim the “tangible symbols” of national identity from the “great cultural shrines of the West.” To explore this conflict, she sets out on a Grand Tour of two American and two European museums, and of several Mediterranean countries from whose monuments and tombs their collections have been formed.

In Cairo she is moonstruck by Zahi Hawass, Egypt’s flamboyant antiquities czar, who issues off-color threats to museums that refuse to give back trophies like the Rosetta stone. (“I thought I should dance with them first, before I kiss them,” Hawass says of the British Museum, in one of his milder statements.) At the Louvre, Waxman wonders why there is no information about how all those Pharaonic monuments got there. In Turkey, she ­visits a tiny provincial museum that has managed to lose track of a Lydian treasure reclaimed (with great effort) from the Met. In Athens, she tours the New Acropolis Museum, wishfully designed to house the Elgin marbles, while in Britain she locates an elderly descendant of Lord Elgin who, not surprisingly, is disinclined to see them returned. At the Getty, she is distracted by old “tales of sex among the curators and researchers,” arguing, dubiously, that they provide a general “backdrop of personal drama and tensions” that helps explain the problems over stolen antiquities.

Along the way, Waxman rehearses some of the more ruthless European campaigns of archaeological dismemberment in the 18th and 19th centuries, and she is surely right to lament the failure of the Louvre and the British Museum to inform the public about the darker episodes in their pasts. Unfortunately, the recent troubles have little to do with that era, and her argument falters when her itinerary brings her to Rome. After all — as she concedes in passing — Italy was a colonizer not a colony, and the American museums that have been its primary target are not, for the most part, burdened by imperial misdeeds. Here, the essential background is the emergence of an almost completely unregulated international antiquities market after World War II, and of a growing web of cultural property laws and enforcement mechanisms (including America’s own courts and customs officials) that are now being used to shut that market down.

With so much ground to cover, Waxman doesn’t have much time to investigate this complicated legal history, and her account of the Rome trial of the former Getty curator Marion True, in particular, betrays a faulty grasp of the facts. Waxman makes able use of earlier press accounts (including my own), and she is correct to conclude that while the evidence is disturbing, the idea of a conspiracy centered around True raises many questions. But she seems to think, among other misunderstandings, that Maurizio Fiorilli, a lawyer for the Culture Ministry who is her main Italian source, is “the authority who decided whether prosecution was warranted,” when in fact the case is prosecuted by the judiciary, not the ministry.

Citing an unnamed Getty source, Waxman writes that the museum is paying for True’s defense as part of an elaborate “nondisclosure” deal that prevents True from implicating her former employers. But according to lawyers for both sides, the legal fees are governed by a standard agreement that does not restrict True’s ability to testify. They point out that if there were such a nondisclosure requirement, which they deny, it would amount to illegal suppression of evidence. And the museum’s decision to return a rare statue of Aphrodite was not, as Waxman claims, a result of evidence presented by the Italian government, but of separate information turned up by the museum’s own investigators.

The larger problem is Waxman’s portrayal of the antiquities crisis as mainly a “tug of war” over coveted museum pieces. In fact, the more important battle concerns unprotected archaeological sites, and it is far less a matter of repatriating objects than of figuring out how to stop latter-day looters from destroying our collective past. That vital challenge remains unsolved.

Hugh Eakin has written about museums and the antiquities trade for The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker and The Times.