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Tackling the looted antiquities problem

As part of a supplement on museums, the New York Times had a group discussion with various key figures in the art / museum industry about the issues surrounding looted artefacts in museums. Predictably there were a range of opinions on the subject, ranging from those who see it as a problem that should be dealt with to those who push the issue that many looted artefacts would have ended up destroyed or hidden in private collections if museums had not purchased them.

New York Times [1]

Is It All Loot? Tackling The Antiquities Problem
Published: March 29, 2006

On March 6, at the New School in New York, Michael Kimmelman, The Times’s chief art critic, moderated a discussion about antiquities and their provenance. He opened by delving into the topic of the Euphronios krater, a 2,500-year-old Greek bowl that the Metropolitan Museum of Art has recently agreed to return to Italy. Here are excerpts, edited for clarity, from the conversation.

MICHAEL KIMMELMAN: Questions about whether the Euphronios krater was looted are nothing new.

PHILIPPE DE MONTEBELLO [(director and chief executive of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.)]: Documents emerged out of the criminal trial against the Getty Museum. How Italy prosecuted its case in the United States is rather shabby. It was entirely through the press. For years, we wrote countless times to the Italian ministry, to the justice department there and so forth, asking for a direct dialogue and really never got it. I went with our secretary and counsel Sharon Cott in 1999 and it led to nothing. I was there in 2003 to discuss the whole issue of the silver that the archaeologist Malcolm Bell said, on circumstantial evidence, came from Morgantina in Sicily, asking whether they had any hard information. I got blank stares.

But if you pile up enough circumstantial evidence, you’ve eventually got something that’s beyond reasonable doubt. And that has become the case. I thought that some sort of formula where reciprocity and exchange could be arranged would be successful for both sides and not deprive the American museums altogether of antiquities when the objects were returned to Italy. As you know, Italian museum storerooms are engorged with works of art. It’s not as if they needed them. This is a political statement.

And we also negotiated what I think is important for the field as a whole in the future, joint excavations, with our archaeologists digging in Italy, where if we find a number of important objects they would be sent to the Metropolitan for conservation and for long-term loan.

ELIZABETH C. STONE [(professor of archaeology – State University at Stony Brook)]: Bit by bit, various museums, countries, groups have begun to see the light, if you will, and to restrain their appetites for looted objects since the Unesco agreement was passed in 1970 against importing looted objects. The Germans, for example, have a very good relationship with Italy now, exchanging objects. You wouldn’t buy a house or a car that somebody hasn’t given you a legitimate title to. It should be the same with antiquities. I’ve talked to museum people in the Middle East. They would love to have museums of international art — trade a second-rate Impressionist for a bunch of Sumerian statuary. If you stop bad behavior, then all kinds of things are possible.

KIMMELMAN: But has the Unesco agreement really worked? Archaeologists are saying the problems have gotten worse.

JAMES CUNO [(president and director of the Art Institute of Chicago)]: The same people who argue for agreements like Unesco say the illicit trade in antiquities has increased exponentially. Actually, the trade has gone elsewhere than to museums. Museums are collecting far fewer objects of antiquity than ever before. But private collectors are not. And those private collectors may not be in the United States. They may be in the Gulf states, in Japan, wherever. What the agreement has done is drive the market from the public to the private domain.

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH [(professor of philosophy, Princeton University.)]: The Unesco system shares an assumption that the goal is to get everything into some public domain. I think that for the vast bulk of art, the right place for it to be is in the private world, governed by market rules. It’s a very important fact about art, including antiquities, that it enriches the lives of people who live with it, not just people who visit museums.

So the first thing I would have us think about is the importance of distinguishing between the vast majority of objects that human beings should live with — objects of virtue, beauty, whatever you want to call it — and the rather small proportion of them, which are masterpieces, works of profound importance, which should end up in the public domain. What matters is not ownership, it’s access — that as many people in the world get access to the richest aesthetic experience possible. If I were the National Museum in Kenya and today I wanted to start building a museum that included not just Kenyan artifacts but world art, a cosmopolitan collection, I’d have a very, very hard time. And one of the reasons is because I have nothing to offer, say, the Italians. The Met has things of beauty and virtue to swap. But without things to exchange, countries suffer from restrictions on the movement of objects. If you have focused, as Unesco has done in the case of Mali, say, almost exclusively on stopping stuff getting out, you’ve done absolutely nothing for the people of Mali in terms of helping them to develop a broad cultural experience. One thing that Mali is not short of is Malian art. But if you care about the aesthetic experience of Malians, you’ll be more concerned to see how to get them some of those second-rate Impressionists.

DE MONTEBELLO: The very notion that somehow looted objects account for the vast majority of antiquities simply doesn’t hold up. Newspapers write about a market of $2 billion to $4 billion in looted art. In 1999, Christie’s and Sotheby’s did a survey of the market for all antiquities, not just looted — many had come out of grand-tour collections — and it was somewhere between $80 million and $90 million, worldwide. American museums, in the aggregate — we’ve just done a poll — have bought, on average per year, about $150,000 worth of antiquities without provenance. Now between that and $4 billion, there’s a chasm I’m unable to bridge.

STONE: The $4 billion, I think, is plucked out of the air because mostly we don’t know what it is. But let me give you an example of the effect of looting. One of the most important things, archaeologically to come out of Iraq, is the Sumerian flood myth. It shows that Noah’s story existed in Mesopotamia a thousand years, at least, before the Bible was written. We know this only from pieces of broken tablets found in the 19th century. Looters today would just throw those fragments away. There isn’t a market for them.

APPIAH: Nobody is in favor of random digs or losing crucial information about these objects because of looting. The question is whether we can create a sane international system.

The current situation in Africa is this: The Unesco system gives each minister of culture the right, basically, to tell people that they can’t take stuff out. The ministries of culture in these countries generally have a tiny budget and no staff. So the minister is not in any position to do sensible regulation. Instead, the minister might be encouraged to say to the people: “Look, we prefer things to be done in authorized digs by archaeologists. But we understand that we can’t achieve that, just as we understand we can’t stop some people from smoking marijuana. So what we’re going to do is we’re going to create a system that incentivizes people who are going to dig stuff up anyway to give us as much information about where it came from as possible, by offering a reasonable price, and by allowing the Met or the Art Institute to go directly into these places and work with our countries.”

KIMMELMAN: There are countries that already provide incentives — Britain, no? — so that if you dig up something, you then declare it, keep it, and the nation reserves the right to buy it from you at fair value if you wish to sell it. In Italy, I believe you can be penalized if you discover something on your land and declare it, because the government can then seize your property.

CUNO: Things that are found in the ground in Italy belong to the state of Italy. They don’t belong to the person who owns that land. So people don’t declare what they find. But there’s another factor. We live in an age of resurgent nationalism. When the U.N. was founded 60 years ago, it had 51 nations. Now it has 191 member nation states — 82 of them have laws on the books that condemn you to the status of possessing stolen property if you find objects in the ground. Cultural property is a modern political construct. It’s what a modern nation state claims it to be. Italy is making claims on objects that are, in the case of the Euphronios krater, 2,500 years old. The state itself is only 170 years old.

APPIAH: The regulations Italy currently has are crazy because they fail to stop this looting. They’re crazy if you care about people outside Italy having access to the extraordinary cultural riches of Italy without going there. And they’re crazy because they lead to deaths and violence and crime. If you possess something that’s been in Italy for 50 years, under present law you can’t take it out of the country without permission of the Italian government. This applies to a Jasper Johns painting of an American flag, which happens to have been in Italy for 50 years.

KIMMELMAN: What might be a fair statute of limitations?

STONE: I don’t know anybody who isn’t comfortable with 1970, the date of the Unesco agreement, when international law essentially came together.

KIMMELMAN: The Greeks have been asking for the Elgin marbles for generations.

DE MONTEBELLO: Between 1970 and 2006, we’re talking about 36, 37 years, during which time a great number of very substantial objects of great merit have found their way into collections and onto the market. Archaeologists say we should not buy them. Then what should be done with them? Condemn them to oblivion? Or bring them into the public domain and to the attention of possible claimant nations?

CUNO: Or what about the Dead Sea Scrolls? We don’t know where they were found. Some Bedouin showed up with them. Should people have said, Nope, sorry, we can’t touch them? That’s the choice museums now are told to make.

DE MONTEBELLO: If one of those tablet fragments Elizabeth Stone spoke about earlier chanced upon her desk with a fascinating inscription on it but no legitimate provenance, she would not be allowed to publish it: the Archaeological Institute of America forbids it.

STONE: And I won’t.

DE MONTEBELLO: Does that advance knowledge?

STONE: No, but when you publish, as a scholar, you’re authenticating the object. And when you authenticate it, its value goes up.

APPIAH: It seems to me there’s a kind of unreality about many of these responses to the problem of looting.

KIMMELMAN: You were talking earlier, Philippe, about museums excavating with permission to borrow what they find on long-term loans. The great collections at places like the Met and the British Museum and Chicago were put together in concert with foreign countries. Many archaeologists got interested in becoming archaeologists when they were kids by seeing those collections. Why has the relationship soured lately between museums and archaeologists?

STONE: Americans have a difficult time understanding these issues. Most people here are of European extraction, not Native American. We have this dissonance between our own archaeology and our majority culture. It’s unseemly of us to denigrate the relationship that, say, Italians feel with ancient Romans and Etruscans.

CUNO: But what about, say, Muslim Italians of North African descent? Should they also feel that a Greek krater is important to their self-esteem and identity? Or is this the majority culture looking back at some imagined link …

STONE: It’s not an imagined link. If you look at genetic material, there’s a lot of Roman and Etruscan …

APPIAH: Now we’ve gone from nationalism to racism.

STONE: What we’re talking about is how people create identities. And of course people from North Africa are not going to have the same relationship to a Roman past, just as most of this audience doesn’t have the same relationship to Native American remains that Native Americans do.

APPIAH: We’ve talked mostly about Italy and the United States. There are 50-odd countries in Africa — all of them younger than I am. The cultural roots are Asanti, Zulu. These are not the names of African nations. Now with the rise of an Islamist conception of statehood, Mesopotamian ancestors become pagan idolaters, which is what happened in Afghanistan, where the Taliban, acting according to the Unesco conventions, were considered rightly trustees of Afghan objects, and they exercised their trusteeship by destroying them.

STONE: That was outrageous. No way will I defend that.

APPIAH: It does seem to me to show how this nationalist logic can endanger what we all mostly care about, which is the survival of the cosmopolitan experience. Assigning ownership to modern nation states, many of which are very young, or which have very conflicted and sometimes odd relations with the cultures that happened to be on their territory, is a mistake.

KIMMELMAN: Questions from the audience?

Q: I wonder if anyone might consider the notion of the commons, a cultural commons. Serious scientists know science cannot advance unless knowledge is understood as a kind of commons.

DE MONTEBELLO: I think the reality, since we have been talking about the Euphronios vase, is that the knowledge that we have of Greek vase painting is based 98 percent on vases that were never excavated by licensed archaeologists. Archaeologists talk about the loss of context. We have almost a totality of the possible knowledge we could have, although we don’t know what the vase painters ate.

Where I agree with Elizabeth Stone is that there are very deep-rooted feelings on the part of people who occupy the boot or the peninsula of Italy for their past. But the problem with the notion that on a providential zephyr an object will somehow return to its context by being returned to the country it came from — well, what is the difference between the object moving 5,000 miles to the Metropolitan and five kilometers to the local museum. It’s not in its original context in either place.

STONE: I’ve talked to people in Turkey and Iraq about this because one of the things the American dealers have argued is that there should be a kind of a licit trade in duplicates, if you will, which seems reasonable to me. But they also say the problem is the price of some of the objects involved. When you talk about France, Germany, Britain and Japan, you’re talking about wealthy countries. When you’re talking about Iraq or Egypt or Mali, you’re talking about very poor countries. The amount of money is so high, so much for certain objects that they won’t be able to control corrupt trade.

Q: The nation state has been the bad guy in this discussion. Isn’t it the case that the cosmopolitanism of the 19th century, which created the Metropolitan Museum and the British Museum, was really imperialism — that the last great cosmopolitanism was a kind of tyranny of reason with a white face.

APPIAH: The museum that was looted in my home town in Africa was created by an Asanti king who had heard about the British Museum. He thought it sounded like a good idea. And it was a good idea. People mention things having Western sources as if, nowadays, this is supposed to count against them in some way. If you’re a cosmopolitan, you’re enthusiastic about us borrowing from Muslim culture and from Chinese culture. And you’re perfectly happy to have them borrow from yours.