February 13, 2013

Disputes over the return of antiquities

Posted at 9:17 am in Similar cases

Hugh Eakin’s post in the New York Times about museums handing back artefacts to thheir original owners prompted interesting & well reasoned responses from both Paul Barford & David Gill’s blogs.

Now, the newspaper has printed a selection of reader’s letters replying to the article.

New York Times

The Dispute Over Returning Antiquities
Published: February 3, 2013

To the Editor:

“The Great Giveback,” by Hugh Eakin (Sunday Review, Jan. 27), made several important points that have been missing in the discussion about “repatriation” of museum-acquired artifacts.

But it did not mention that the repatriation issue applies to the United States as well. Until the creation of the Archaeological Conservancy in 1980, neither our state nor federal governments made much of an attempt to defend important sites all over this country from looters, who not only destroyed both the sites and thousands of artifacts as they bulldozed their way through Indian burial mounds, but also “illegally” sold off the remains to foreign buyers.

Rare Mimbres pots, for example, are held in collections from Germany to Japan, with little pressure from the press or the courts to return them.

If the governments of Italy, Greece, Egypt, Cambodia and the rest put so little store by their heritage that indigenous pothunters could dig it up and sell it off, it is all the more to the credit of foreign buyers — and the diligent archaeologists who helped to find and excavate the artifacts — that they are now preserved and most of them available for study and display.

The Elgin marbles probably would not have survived without the care they have been given in the British Museum, and the same is true of much of the remains from Egyptian tombs, Greek temples and the monasteries of Spain honored by institutions that know their value.

As Mr. Eakin points out, our museums make a mistake by giving up these artifacts. The governments that so carelessly let them go should be grateful that these things have been kept intact.

Osprey, Fla., Jan. 30, 2013

The writer was director of a national study of art museum education and a founder of the Archaeological Conservancy.

To the Editor:

Stephen Urice, a cultural property lawyer, is quoted as saying that archaeological looting is increasing despite the voluntary restitution of unprovenanced objects by American museums. I disagree. Archaeological looting has substantially decreased in some countries, independent of museum restitution and American import restrictions.

The Italian cultural police have stated that they have largely halted looting in Italy by breaking up the big international smuggling rings. Little fresh material is coming out of Cambodia, decades after the civil war and the demise of the Khmer Rouge. It’s time to rationally address whether archaeological looting in specific nations is driven by demand in the American antiquities market.

New York, Jan. 28, 2013

The writer is a lawyer who represents art dealers and collectors.

To the Editor:

In describing the “hardball tactics of foreign governments” to repatriate art objects, Hugh Eakin glosses over the issue of power imbalance. Repatriation is only partly about the art. It’s also a specific form of diplomacy that must be understood in a broader context of power and politics.

Since the early 20th century, when officials in Rome lamented the exodus of Italian art works to the Americans, the field of antiquities collecting has been characterized by submissive source countries and dominant destination countries.

That Italy, Turkey and Greece have increasingly asserted their ownership of antiquities in the past decade is indicative of a decisive change in the power dynamics of this field, a change that mirrors shifting geopolitical relations more broadly. “Americans’ access to the ancient world” may well have to take a back seat to the Italians’ (or Turks’ or Greeks’) access.

Ann Arbor, Mich., Jan. 28, 2013

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  1. csandis said,

    02.13.13 at 9:19 am

    RT @elginism: Blog post: Disputes over the return of antiquities http://t.co/rAz2cgsR

  2. f_micalizzi said,

    02.13.13 at 2:35 pm

    RT @elginism: Blog post: Disputes over the return of antiquities http://t.co/rAz2cgsR

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