December 13, 2008

Should ancient art be given back?

Posted at 2:45 pm in British Museum, Elgin Marbles, Similar cases

Another review of Sharon Waxman’s new book on the looting of the ancient world by museums of the West.


Book Review
Give Me Back My Ancient Art
Judith H. Dobrzynski, 12.12.08, 12:00 AM EST
A battle rages between museums and countries of origin.

From time to time, the battle for antiquities that rages between museums, collectors and dealers on one side and governments and archaeologists on the other breaks into the headlines–“Bail Set in Greece for Ex-Getty Curator,” “Antiquities Trial in Rome Focuses on London Dealer” and the like.

The coverage rarely lasts long or goes deep; it tends to sympathize with the countries making claims. Most people probably shake their heads in disapproval of the looters, smugglers, museums and collectors, and turn the page.

But many antiquities cases are not open-and-shut; they have two sides worth hearing. Sharon Waxman, a journalist who has worked for the Washington Post and the New York Times, set out to air them in Loot: The Battle Over the Stolen Treasures of the Ancient World.

The subject is huge, so Waxman focused on four museums–the Louvre, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the British Museum and the J. Paul Getty Museum–and four claimant countries, Egypt, Italy, Greece and Turkey. “Who ought to own the trophies of history, Western museums or the countries that were plundered over 200 years?” she asked.

Waxman can’t–and shouldn’t, really–answer the question herself, though she, too, generally sides with the plundered, especially Egypt. She seems particularly taken with the arguments and flamboyant personality of Zahi Hawass, the secretary-general of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, who is listed in the acknowledgments as sparking the book.

The truth is, had it not been for many of the adventurers who went to Egypt, Greece and Turkey (Italy is a separate case), some of these treasures would not be with us today. Of the pharaonic tombs in Upper Egypt, Waxman writes, “The Qurna villagers long ago…stole anything that could be stolen, and the unpleasant byproduct of their lack of running water has meant sewage runoff into the tombs themselves. I am not in favor of looting tombs, but it is true that the artifacts [Giovanni] Belzoni took, and those the villagers sold to collectors, have at least a chance of survival. What is in the tombs today has little similar chance.” The current condition of many museums in poor countries like Egypt and in Turkey, which Waxman also describes, adds to the concern.

Full disclosure is in order here: Aside from reporting on these issues in the past, I am a program consultant–though not on ancient art–to the foundation established by the late Leon Levy, who with his wife, Shelby White, collected antiquities and provided the naming gift for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Greek and Roman galleries. On the other hand, one of my grandfathers came from Sicily, not far from the important Morgantina archaeological site, and I’ve been pleased when museums here have agreed to return pieces stolen by tomb-raiders to a museum there. Maybe the plunder will now stop.

Waxman’s biggest contribution to this subject lies in the history she tells. Some is swashbuckling: French and British imperialists vying with each other in the sands of Egypt; a Met founder and U.S. consul in Cyprus evading an export ban by using the title he simultaneously held as Russian consul on the label of 360 treasure-filled packing cases; and other acts of trickery to get the goods.

Some is deeply disturbing. For example, to obtain for the Louvre the 2,000-plus year-old “zodiac ceiling,” Frenchmen used gunpowder to extract it from the Temple of Denderah in Egypt. Asked about that, the Louvre’s Egyptian curator said, “How else would you remove a stone ceiling?”

Balancing these accounts, Waxman mentions the mixed motives of some of today’s claimants: Many have political ambitions at home, and the archaeologists who take their side are also dependent on them for dig permits.

She also explores the contradictions that weaken their cases–today’s Egyptians care little about their ancient past; half of Athenians have never set foot on the Acropolis; the Turks of today have little ethnic connection to the ancient Greeks, Lydians and others who lived in what is now Turkey.

Italy was itself an imperialist country that brought home war booty from Ethiopia and Libya. While exhibition in major encyclopedic museums brings these gorgeous displays of human achievement to millions of visitors, their return to dusty provincial museums upon restitution may consign them to viewings by a couple dozen people a year–if they aren’t put in storage.

On the whole, though, Waxman believes her target museums have behaved badly, particularly by hiding the history of the objects in contention. She succeeds at conveying their arrogance, particularly at the Louvre. “Who would be interested in Greek sculpture if it were all in Greece?” asks the Louvre’s press attaché. “These pieces are great because they are in the Louvre.”

Later, Françoise Cachin, the former director of France’s museum authority, inexplicably compares the Louvre’s disputed Egyptian antiquities, which were basically stolen, to Seurat’s masterpiece, “Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” which was purchased by a collector and given to the Art Institute of Chicago. “It should never have been allowed to leave the country…But I would not ask for it back. We have to be responsible for our own past.” And so, she added, do the Egyptians.

“Loot” unfortunately bears some traces of slapdashery. Waxman makes little mistakes (calling investor Michael Steinhardt a Met trustee, when he is not; calling modern Egyptians “not the actual forebears of the ancients,” a neat trick were it possible).

She occasionally repeats herself, telling a tale twice in difference contexts. She employs boilerplate copy from time to time, obviously drawn from Web sites. And she oddly often sets the scene with weather reports not on the day when something momentous happened, but on the day she visited in the course of her reporting.

While Waxman concludes by arguing for museum transparency–and visitors should indeed know when objects they’re examining have a sordid past–she acknowledges that there’s no easy solution. But anyone who wants to think intelligently about these battles should know the ground Waxman covers, and she has provided a highly readable way to do so.

Judith H. Dobrzynski writes frequently about culture and the arts.

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