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Rosetta Stone: Looted art or finders keepers?

Egypt wants the British Museum to return the Rosetta Stone [1] – This is one piece that they have asked for many times before, but to no success so far. The retentionist arguments are typically following the usual patterns though of claiming that the country demanding the return of the artefact did not exist at the time the artefact was created (With artefacts of this age, it is hard to believe that any case would not fall foul of this argument, which neglects the ties between the artefacts & the locality in which it originated – whatever that area might be called now). Another often repeated argument suggests that the artefacts would have been neglected if it had not been taken (which is entirely speculative & relies on assumptions – there is also the issue of whether protecting / popularising a piece really reinforces ownership of it, or allows for its continued retention).

The same arguments keep coming out every time – as a means of perpetuating the status quo rather than trying to actually deal with the issues or see the oter side’s point of view in any way.

New York Times [2]

A Case in Antiquities for ‘Finders Keepers’
Published: November 16, 2009

Zahi Hawass regards the Rosetta Stone, like so much else, as stolen property languishing in exile. “We own that stone,” he told Al Jazeera, speaking as the secretary general of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities.

The British Museum does not agree — at least not yet. But never underestimate Dr. Hawass when it comes to this sort of custody dispute. He has prevailed so often in getting pieces returned to what he calls their “motherland” that museum curators are scrambling to appease him.

Last month, after Dr. Hawass suspended the Louvre’s excavation in Egypt, the museum promptly returned the ancient fresco fragments he sought. Then the Metropolitan Museum of Art made a pre-emptive display of its “appreciation” and “deep respect” by buying a piece of a shrine from a private collector so that it could be donated to Egypt.

Now an official from the Neues Museum in Berlin is headed to Egypt to discuss Dr. Hawass’s demand for its star attraction, a bust of Nefertiti.

These gestures may make immediate pragmatic sense for museum curators worried about getting excavation permits and avoiding legal problems. But is this trend ultimately good for archaeology?

Scientists and curators have generally supported the laws passed in recent decades giving countries ownership of ancient “cultural property” discovered within their borders. But these laws rest on a couple of highly debatable assumptions: that artifacts should remain in whatever country they were found, and that the best way to protect archaeological sites is to restrict the international trade in antiquities.

In some cases, it makes aesthetic or archaeological sense to keep artifacts grouped together where they were found, but it can also be risky to leave everything in one place, particularly if the country is in turmoil or can’t afford to excavate or guard all its treasures. After the Metropolitan Museum was pressured to hand over a collection called the Lydian Hoard, one of the most valuable pieces was stolen several years ago from its new home in Turkey.

Restricting the export of artifacts hasn’t ended their theft and looting any more than the war on drugs has ended narcotics smuggling. Instead, the restrictions promote the black market and discourage the kind of open research that would benefit everyone except criminals.

Legitimate dealers, museums and private collectors have a financial incentive to pay for expert excavation and analysis of artifacts, because that kind of documentation makes the objects more valuable. A nation could maintain a public registry of discoveries and require collectors to give scholars access to the artifacts, but that can be accomplished without making everything the property of the national government.

The timing of Dr. Hawass’s current offensive, as my colleague Michael Kimmelman reported, makes it look like retribution against the Westerners who helped prevent an Egyptian from becoming the leader of Unesco, the United Nation’s cultural agency. But whatever the particular motivation, there is no doubt that the cultural-property laws have turned archeological discoveries into political weapons.

In his book “Who Owns Antiquity?”, James Cuno argues that scholars have betrayed their principles by acquiescing to politicians who have exploited antiquities to legitimize themselves and their governments. Saddam Hussein was the most blatant, turning Iraqi archeology museums into propaganda for himself as the modern Nebuchadnezzar, but other leaders have been just as cynical in using antiquities to bolster their claims of sovereignty.

Dr. Cuno advocates the revival of partage, the traditional system in which archeologists digging in foreign countries would give some of their discoveries to the host country and take others home. That way both sides benefit, and both sides have incentives to recover antiquities before looters beat them to it. (To debate this idea, go to nytimes.com/tierneylab.)

As the director of the Art Institute of Chicago, Dr. Cuno has his own obvious motives for acquiring foreign antiquities, and he makes no apology for wanting to display Middle Eastern statues to Midwesterners.

“It is in the nature of our species to connect and exchange,” Dr. Cuno writes. “And the result is a common culture in which we all have a stake. It is not, and can never be, the property of one modern nation or another.”

Some of the most culturally protectionist nations today, like Egypt, Italy and Turkey, are trying to hoard treasures that couldn’t have been created without the inspiration provided by imported works of art. (Imagine the Renaissance without the influence of “looted” Greek antiquities.) And the current political rulers of those countries often have little in common culturally with the creators of the artifacts they claim to own.

Dr. Hawass may consider the Rosetta Stone to be the property of his government agency, but the modern state of Egypt didn’t even exist when it was discovered in 1799 (much less when it was inscribed in 196 B.C., during the Hellenistic era). The land was under the rule of the Ottoman Empire, and the local historians were most interested in studying their Islamic heritage.

The inscribed stone fragment, which had been used as construction material at a fort, didn’t acquire any significance until it was noticed by Napoleon’s soldiers and examined by the scholars on the expedition.

When the French lost the war, they made a copy of the inscriptions before surrendering the stone to the English victors, who returned it to the British Museum. Eventually, two scholars, working separately in Britain and in France, deciphered the hieroglyphics.

This all happened, of course, long before today’s nationalistic retention laws and the United Nations’ Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. But what if the Rosetta Stone were unearthed in modern times?

Were the Rosetta Stone to appear on the art market without the proper export permits and documented provenance, Dr. Cuno says, a museum curator who acquired it would risk international censure and possible criminal charges. Scholars would shun it because policies at the leading archeological journals would forbid the publication of its text.

“Not being acquired or published, the Rosetta Stone would be a mere curiosity,” Dr. Cuno writes. “Egyptology as we know it would not exist, and modern Egyptians would not know to claim it as theirs.”

The Supreme Council of Antiquities wouldn’t even know what it was missing.

new York Times Blogs [3]

November 16, 2009, 5:57 pm
Who Should Own the Rosetta Stone?

Should the British Museum return the Rosetta Stone to Egypt? Should the export of a nation’s “cultural property” be banned? Should there be laws giving national governments ownership of any antiquity unearthed today within their borders?

In my Findings column I discuss the case against these policies — and the case for the museum curators and art dealers who have lately come in so for much criticism (and sometimes criminal prosecution). This may sound like a self-serving argument coming from someone in the United States, which has been a net importer of antiquities from abroad, and I acknowledge that there are certain artifacts that are best appreciated where they were created. I can understand the case for keeping the Great Pyramid in Egypt, the Pantheon in Rome and Independence Hall in Philadelphia.

But does that mean that every newly unearthed statue in Egypt must remain there? What would be wrong with allowing a copy of the Declaration of Independence to go abroad? If foreigners are eager to buy ancient Native American artifacts, or artifacts from NASA’s missions to the Moon or Elvis Presley’s concerts, why not let those objects be displayed and enjoyed by people overseas?

The ethical case for the dispersal of cultural artifacts is made eloquently by James Cuno, the director of the Art Institute of Chicago, in his 2008 book, “Who Owns Antiquity? Museums and the Battle Over Our Ancient Heritage.” You can read a summary of his position in the introduction to a new book of essays edited by Dr. Cuno, “Whose Culture? The Promise of Museums and the Debate over Antiquities.” Here are some excerpts from that introduction by Dr. Cuno:

It is the nature of culture to be dynamic and ever changing. Yet national governments ignore this fact. They impose a national claim of distinction on culture, and they seek an ancient pedigree for that culture. They want to claim primacy as much as purity: ancient origins and uninterrupted identity. But this is only politics. Modern Egypt’s claim of descent from pharaonic Egypt, or the People’s Republic of China from the ancient Qin, or Iraq from Mesopotamia, or Italy from ancient Rome is nationalist fantasy based on the accident of geography and enforced by sovereignty. Just ask the Copts in Egypt, the Tibetans in China or the Kurds in Iraq. …

This is why it is imperative that we continue building encyclopedic museum collections and provide safe harbor within them for unprovenanced antiquities. They, no less than the other objects in our collections, are important artifacts of human history, evidence of our common artistic legacy, deserving of our respect. They have equal claim on the Enlightenment ideal of the museum as a repository of things and knowledge, dedicated to the museum’s role as a force for understanding, tolerance and the dissipation of ignorance and superstition about the world, where the artifacts of one time and one culture can be seen next to those of other times and other cultures without prejudice. Such is the promise of the museum.

Another argument in favor of dispersing antiquities is that they would be better protected. Spreading them around the world eliminates the risk of them all being destroyed in one place. And it can be safer to rely on an array of private collectors and museums than to count on a national government (particularly if the government is corrupt). Private dealers are often blamed for encouraging looting, but they would prefer to buy artifacts that are legitimately excavated because that provenance makes them more valuable. I’ve previously written about a proposal by economists to create more incentives for private exploration and preservation of antiquities.

I suspect some Lab readers have other arguments. I welcome your thoughts. Who should own antiquity?