December 5, 2008
The Burlington Magazine
Who Owns Antiquity? Museums and the Battle over our Ancient Heritage. By James Cuno.
228 pp. incl. 6 b. & w. ills. (Princeton University Press, Princeton and Oxford, 2008), £14.95. ISBN 978–0–691–13712–4.
Reviewed by COLIN RENFREW
McDonald Institute, University of Cambridge
THE POLEMIC OVER what antiquities should be acquired by museums, and which ones they should decline in order to discourage the illicit traffic in them, has become much louder in recent months, with the reluctant return to Italy of antiquities, worth many millions of dollars, by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and by the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. These, it was claimed, had been illicitly excavated and illegally exported in recent decades, a charge tacitly accepted by the museums which agreed to their return. In this readable and lucidly argued book James Cuno sets out what might, ten years ago, have been described as the art museum director’s case on the proprieties of ownership and acquisition. His position is still indeed held by the collection of which he is Director (the Art Institute of Chicago) along with such other influential institutions as the Metropolitan Museum or the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. But the times have moved on, and other museums, including now the Getty itself, have shown themselves willing to adopt more careful acquisition policies and to avoid buying antiquities which might have been the product of looting. Cuno here, thoughtfully and with well-chosen examples, reasserts the traditional view.
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