January 8, 2009

Pillagers are being called to account

Posted at 2:47 pm in Elgin Marbles, Similar cases

Another review of Sharon Waxman’s new book – this time in the Australian Press.

The Australian

Pillagers called to account
Rosemary Sorensen
January 08, 2009

AFTER Michael Brand took on the directorship of the J. Paul Getty Museum in California and inherited the ugly mess of its acquisitions history, he suggested that being an Australian was an advantage.

“I went in (to negotiate with the Italian government the return of looted artworks the Getty owned) with no background in antiquities, no history at the Getty, a neutral person,” Brand told author and journalist Sharon Waxman last year. “It might even have helped that I was Australian — who knows?” Waxman, in her recently published book Loot, concurs, calling Brand a “blank slate”.

Brand’s “who knows?” was a throwaway line but his comment opens up a Pandora’s box about the politics within the moneyed and powerful art-trading world. Behind the Getty’s problems, and behind the larger troubles besetting the system of art collecting, are the volatile ingredients of cultural identity.

In the great museums the cultural battles are, for the most part, nonviolent. But as sites to challenge, engage, frustrate and enlighten anyone interested in the ethics of collecting, the museum and art gallery have become hot spots. Much has been written about, in particular, the centuries-long dispute between Greece and Britain over the Parthenon marble sculptures removed by Lord Elgin, particularly in the lead-up to next month’s opening of a new museum at the foot of the Parthenon in Athens. But that is just one of many ethical problems Waxman discusses in Loot.

Among the stories she neatly summarises is that of the so-called Lydian hoard (believed to be the wealth of king Croesus) that found its way to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York before the strenuous efforts of a Turkish journalist shamed the museum into returning it. The centrepiece of that collection, a small gold brooch depicting a hippocampus (or flying horse with a fish tail), subsequently disappeared from the inadequate Turkish museum where it was housed.

The Louvre, with its seemingly endless rooms of Egyptian treasures, has the zodiac ceiling from the Temple of Hathor, infamously acquired (or at least those who see the lusty march of Napoleon across the North African desert as less than noble tend to regard it as such). For museum directors such as the Louvre’s Henri Loyrette, bringing just a fraction of Egypt’s treasures out of Egypt for the pleasure and elucidation of millions was a duty handed down from the Enlightenment. The theft belongs to another time and cannot be judged retrospectively (an argument with which Australians are familiar). Now it must be seen as a gift to humanity that the Louvre, as custodian, makes available to the world.

Waxman comes across as a latter-day Henrietta Stackpole, the feisty journalist depicted by Henry James in his tragic tale about, among other things, the cultural chasm between America and Europe, The Portrait of a Lady. She makes it quite clear what she thinks of Loyrette’s claims for the “universal museum”, which puts the ideal of collecting for the good of humanity ahead of nationalist pride (and avarice). While the Frenchman was peeved by the American’s insistent questions, the American nevertheless finds self-serving his arguments about what happened in the past belonging to the past.

Loyrette dismisses claims by pesky Egyptian Zahi Hawass, general secretary of the Superior Council of Antiquities. Not returning objects such as the zodiac ceiling, blasted from the Temple of Hathor at Dendera in the Valley of the Kings at the height of the Napoleonic campaign, Hawass says, is offensive and damaging to Egyptian cultural identity. And yet France, as Australian museologists discovered when they began talking about the repatriation of Aboriginal human remains, holds an intransigent and logically absurd position that anything acquired by the state in the past, no matter how dubiously, becomes part of French patrimony. Giving it up, therefore, would be a blow to French national pride, and is not to be countenanced.

About the most influential of universal museum proponents and the one with the highest profile, the British Museum’s Neil MacGregor, Waxman is less judgmental. She acknowledges the man whom The Times has just named Briton of the Year as “the kinder, gentler face of the British Empire”. But then, with Henrietta-like severity, she concludes that charm and a willingness to listen only take you so far in the culture wars.

“They do not dispel the fundamental problems attached to holding on to objects taken from their place of origin without permission.”

The British Museum has in its keeping not only the Parthenon marbles but also the Rosetta Stone, the deciphering of which unlocked for scholars the secrets of Egyptian hieroglyphics. But it is the bust of Nefertiti, surely the most recognisable of all ancient artefacts, that in Waxman’s view best summarises the present state of this cultural stalemate. The Germans, who display it in a special room at the Berlin Museum that makes the experience awesome, thrilling and quasi-religious, say there was no wrongdoing in its acquisition.

They are generous in its display and careful in its conservation. This, they claim, makes them Nefertiti’s rightful custodians.

As recently as 2007, a Berlin newspaper insisted that Nefertiti had to stay in Germany, bizarrely describing the bust as the “epitome of slimly modern beauty, the ideal of self-confident modern womanhood”, and therefore supposedly more at home in Germany than in Egypt. While the arguments continue, Waxman lays out the ideological problem she believes is at the core of the continuing bickering.

“Today,” she says, “the politics of possession leads the discussion, while it is a culture of exchange that would serve the public — and history.”

At stake is not just the sly and disreputable business of the way in which wealthy museums have bought art in the past, but also, Waxman says, what it means to collect and display culture in the manner in which these institutions have done.

“Our great museums tell lies of omission about the objects they display within their walls,” she writes, and she suggests that we are now in a “new era of owning up to the past”. Interestingly for Australia’s investigations into what cultural history means for a nation’s sense of identity, Waxman suggests that “if necessary, apologies should be offered”. While such apologies “do not address the question of restitution itself”, she says they “represent an enormous step in the right direction”.

“They would also be a gesture of enormous integrity and humility long missing from our great cultural temples. These actions would go a great distance in legitimising the wounded pride of source countries, and healing it.”

It is in this context, perhaps, that Brand thought to make his comment about his being less problematic as a solution-broker. As an Australian, Brand may not be perceived as carrying the same baggage as a European, a Briton or even an American, who must enter into delicate negotiations about who has the right to own and display treasured artworks. Australians, in the hierarchy of cultural supremacy, simply aren’t worth bullying.

The Getty’s problems are far less delicate and require much less ethical nuancing than those facing the British Museum over the Elgin marbles. Despite the public scapegoating of curator Marion True, who is, after several years, still being tried by the Italians for, they claim, knowingly buying looted artefacts, the Getty Villa in Malibu is slowly and surely being emptied of its treasured display, as statues, bowls and friezes are repatriated to Italy. While museum directors such as MacGregor and the recently retired Philippe de Montebello at the Metropolitan Museum of Art continue to marshal elegant and what Waxman calls specious arguments in favour of museums keeping works of dubious provenance, time has caught up with others, such as the Getty.

Even though, as J..P. Getty Trust chairman James Wood says, “You have to put it in context” because “what was broadly accepted across the profession and thought to be adequate due diligence is no longer”, for museums at least, the looting party is over. For private collectors, on the other hand, as the museums defending past practice point out, the game is still very much on, and while Iraq has been particularly bountiful for anyone willing to buy dodgy antiquities, Southeast Asia and China are also lucrative sites for smugglers and unscrupulous dealers.

A couple of weeks ago, a report in the Myanmar Times suggested Bangkok is still operating as a clearing house for antiques from across Southeast Asia, despite a heightened awareness of looting and the laws against exporting antiques. The report quoted an article published in The Sydney Morning Herald in 2007 that encouraged tourists to shop in Bangkok, where “all the finest artworks go”, and which suggested asking the dealer for a written guarantee of the artworks’ “style, age and condition”, but did not mention provenance.

In fact, the report concludes that most “antiques” out of Bangkok are probably good reproductions, but smuggling is still a big problem for the protection of heritage items. The lack of pressure on auction houses to provide details of an item’s provenance also continues to make dodgy acquisitions by collectors, if not museums, all too easy.

As Waxman chronicles, slowly but perhaps surely museums are bowing to the increasingly strident demands of countries that have claims on artworks removed in the past, when such acts were less subject to moral scrutiny. Not covered in Loot, but equally fascinating as a case study in cultural history, are Peruvian demands that Yale University return Machu Picchu artefacts. Last month, lawyers acting for Peru filed a claim in a US court against Yale, which, they say, has unlawfully held for almost a century artefacts removed from the site of the ancient city by Hiram Bingham, the Indiana Jones-style scholar-adventurer who carried them off, promising to return them in 18 months.

Yale had thought long negotiations about it donating a research centre to Peru and concluding a deal on long-term loans of the material were close to yielding results, but the deal collapsed. Now Peru is claiming not only repatriation of the items but also compensation for the prestige and financial reward Yale has gained from the collection.

No doubt the case will be drawn out, and watched with a mixture of interest and dread by museums across the world. As Brand told Waxman, in the case of the steady repatriation of antiques to Italy, the museum has to “be careful not to do something that has inadvertent consequences. Anything we do creates a precedent.”

Loot by Sharon Waxman is published by Times Books ($49.95).

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