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Stolen antiquities & the attitudes of museums

Due to the power (either now, or at the time acquisitions were made) of the worlds most well known museums, in almost all restitution cases, the burden of proof rests on the plaintiff.. Museums either do not understand (or pretend not to understand) that so many of these cases are not about the prestige of a particular object, or the monetary value of it, but that the artefact in question relates to or helps to define the identity of the nation from which it was removed.

From:
Philadelphia Enquirer [1]

Posted on Sun, Nov. 27, 2005
Stolen Antiquities
Editorial | Finders shouldn’t be keepers

In the old days, museums in the West got fat off the carcass of the ancient world. Explorers stole old, priceless artifacts, kidnapped them home, and stuck them in museums. Prestigious collections kept donations rolling in, so, if some goods had a dubious origin, curators just kept mum. Museums thus became massive monuments to colonialist, paternalist condescension and rapine.

True, the antiquities market is, well, shady. A seller brings you an Olmec jaguar mask, a Chinese jade necklace. He might be honest – but how about the seller before him? Many curators used to say: “Maybe it was stolen. But better for us to buy it than let it go to some private collection where the public will never see it again.”

That won’t work any more. Increasingly, countries are asking for their ancient artifacts back. On Tuesday, Italy’s minister of culture, Rocco Buttiglione, said that the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art had agreed to return antiquities said to be looted from Italy, if Italy can prove it. Italy wants a famed 6th-century Greek vase called the Euphronios Krater to be returned. The case is pretty solid – as in Polaroid photos of the vase in a warehouse of contraband. Italian officials also are talking with the Princeton University Art Museum about some ancient vases.

Many people in the West say: “Why should we care?” We should care because this is not a matter of things; this is a matter of cultural identity. So when Greece asks the United Kingdom to return the Elgin Marbles, swiped off the Acropolis two centuries ago by an English duke, it’s not about the money. It’s about what it means to be Greek.

Still don’t care? Consider this headline: “Liberty Bell Stolen; Now Hangs in Chinese Museum.”

All museums must play a greater role in preventing such an atrocity.

Imagine an “Ideal Museum.” It would observe all laws and treaties, including the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. These 1970 United Nations rules have been signed by the United States. There are no statutes of limitation. U.S. Customs and the FBI are charged with enforcing the law against anyone bringing stolen goods from abroad.

The Ideal Museum would do many things differently. It would:

Continue to preserve and display the great works of history.

Help museums in smaller, poorer countries locate and preserve the precious heritage of the past.

Return holdings proven to have been stolen to the originating country. (Italy has a legitimate grievance. So does Greece.) The burden of proof, of course, must always rest with the plaintiff; claims must be persuasive and well documented. When that’s not possible, what’s left is negotiation.

Strike deals directly with other countries for the display of their antiquities. The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology has such a deal in the works with Nigeria. You could say, “OK, we’ll return the stuff you want – and we’d like to buy other antiquities. And we’d like to create an exhibit of your best work, which will always belong to you. We’ll exhibit it and send it around the country. With your share of the proceeds, you can build better museums.”

Such agreements, more and more common in the museum world, create a continual cycle of world-class antiquities traveling around the globe. Museums will no longer be places where things stay forever, but places where the best of all time makes perpetual visits. Such deals can make of the world one grand, universal museum. And that is close to ideal.