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Dealing with the plundering of antiquities

Another review of Sharon Waxman’s new book [1] about the looting that fills the museums of the West.

Dallas Morning News [2]

‘Loot’ by Sharon Waxman: Author delves into the plundering of antiquities
12:00 AM CDT on Sunday, November 2, 2008
By ALEXANDRA WITZE / Special Contributor to The Dallas Morning News
books@dallasnews.com Alexandra Witze is chief of correspondents for America for the science journal Nature.

Classical scholar Marion True, a curator at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, was a leading light in the museum world, until her passion for antiquities landed her in court in Italy.

In a bizarre series of events starting in 2005, Italian prosecutors pursued her for allegedly covering up earlier transactions in which the Getty had bought looted artifacts for its collection. Yet Ms. True had long fought against the murky underworld of smuggled antiquities, and many now feel she became a scapegoat in an ongoing battle between august Western institutions and the often-poorer countries from which the world’s great artifacts were taken.

This fight over humanity’s collective heritage lies at the heart of Sharon Waxman’s insightful new exploration into cultural plunder. Does a bust of Nefertiti have more meaning in a Berlin museum, or on-site back in Egypt? Should the British Museum in London yield to Greece’s long-standing demands to return the Elgin marbles, which were ripped from the Acropolis in Athens two centuries ago? And should Ms. True be made to pay for sins committed by her institution in the past?

To probe such questions, Ms. Waxman travels to four of the world’s great museums: the Getty, the British Museum, the Louvre in Paris and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

Along the way she encounters many of the characters driving the arguments over repatriating artifacts to their source countries. In Cairo, the loquacious Zahi Hawass, the man in charge of the fabled Giza plateau, threatens to revoke Western archaeological permits if artifacts such as the Rosetta Stone are not returned to Egypt. In Rome, convicted smuggler Giacomo Medici tries to justify his actions by expounding at length about his love of art and antiquities. In Ankara, journalist Ozgen Acar appoints himself an investigator and follows the paper trail left in the eternal chain between digger, middleman and buyer.

Ms. Waxman recognizes that repatriation is an extraordinarily nuanced issue. It’s too simplistic to say that all artifacts must be returned to their countries of origin, yet it’s also too simplistic to absolve museums of all responsibility for a history of questionable transactions involving smuggled goods. The British Museum may say that it can take better care of the Elgin marbles than Greece, but in fact London curators damaged the sculptures irreparably during cleaning in the 1930s, and Greece has recently built a modern new museum next to the Acropolis, just waiting to house the marbles should they return.

Of necessity, Ms. Waxman’s focus on Western museums omits some of the best stories of source countries taking care of their artifacts, such as the curators in Kabul who hid the famous Bactrian hoard artifacts from the Taliban for years, at risk of their lives. There are still, however, plenty of heroes and villains to go around.

After reading this book, it’s hard to go through an antiquities exhibit and not scrutinize each caption for detailed information on the provenance of each object. Is its history clearly traced, or does vague wording such as “family heirloom” suggest a dubious past? When it comes to cultural heritage, all of us have a stake in knowing which of the world’s great artifacts are fairly acquired, and which may carry a tainted legacy of plunder.

Alexandra Witze is chief of correspondents for America for the science journal Nature.

The Battle Over the Stolen Treasures
of the Ancient World
Sharon Waxman
(Times Books, $27.50)