December 1, 2008

The battle over stolen treasures from the ancient world

Posted at 1:48 pm in British Museum, Elgin Marbles, Similar cases

Sharon Waxman’s new book seems now to have been reviewed in almost all the major news publications in the US – perhaps an indication of the current level of interest in the subject.

San Francisco Chronicle

Nonfiction review: ‘Loot’ by Sharon Waxman
Reagan Upshaw, Special to The Chronicle
Saturday, November 29, 2008

The Battle Over the Stolen Treasures of the Ancient World
By Sharon Waxman
Times Books; 414 pages; $30

The title, stamped in gold capital letters on the dust jacket, gives away the author’s agenda: This is a muckraking book about art objects from ancient cultures that have found their way into major museums of Europe and the United States. Sharon Waxman has a nose for scandal and spends much of the book following up on reports of thefts by grave robbers, smuggling by dealers and sexual hanky-panky between museum personnel.

The result is an odd volume, part scandal mongering and part travelogue, wrapped around a philosophical question that could have been discussed in a book a tenth of its size.

To the victor belong the spoils has been the case for all of history. Soldiers, from generals to privates, have brought home treasures from the lands they conquered. Napoleon systematized things, bringing 167 artists, scientists and historians on his Egyptian campaign with orders to collect all manner of objects, particularly art. Those French intellectuals, as Waxman points out, created modern Egyptology. Many of their finds wound up in the Louvre, but not the most famous, the Rosetta Stone, key to deciphering hieroglyphs, which the British claimed after defeating Napoleon.

The war ended, but European antiquity hunters stayed in Egypt, aided by local officials who, if properly provided for, were quite willing to grant permits to dig and remove ancient objects. This pattern was followed throughout the Mediterranean and Near East during the 19th century, most notoriously when the Earl of Elgin bribed the Turkish authorities who ruled Greece at the time to allow him to remove from the Parthenon and ship to England what are now known as the Elgin Marbles. They were soon acquired by the British Museum, where they still reside.

The Greeks have never forgotten the loss.

They and other Mediterranean nations have begun the quest in recent times to recover what they regard as their looted patrimony. The result is a conflict between those who espouse the Enlightenment’s idea of a universal museum, where masterpieces from all civilizations are collected and displayed, and those who claim that the removal of objects from the place of their creation, in addition to being theft, robs the objects of the context without which they cannot be fully understood. Museum officials have little patience with the latter view.

As the curator of Egyptian art at the Louvre says, “If that’s the case, then we should put everything back in the tombs and leave it in the dark. At its extreme, that argument is absurd. These objects were not meant to be seen.”

Also problematic are the claims of modern nations to works they regard as their patrimony, but which were created by earlier civilizations. Turkey, for example, successfully sued the Metropolitan Museum of New York to reclaim a collection of sixth century B.C. pieces known as the Lydian Hoard, which had been illegally excavated from Turkish sites. The Lydians, however, had no connection with modern Turks, whose ancestors entered Anatolia 1,800 years later.

Western museums can be smugly patronizing, with their claims that they take better care of ancient objects than museums in the objects’ native lands. Yet they are often right. When the Lydian Hoard was returned to Turkey, it was placed in a provincial museum. Within a couple of years, one of the most important pieces in the collection had been stolen and has not been recovered. There was probably no one to observe the theft: In five years’ time, only 769 people had visited the museum.

Faced with demands for repatriation of artworks, Western museums obfuscate, delay and turn a blind eye to spurious documentation from dealers. Waxman, a former correspondent for the New York Times, recounts tales of arrogance, greed and lust in museum personnel who, however well educated, are all too human in their daily affairs.

The reporter’s search for the telling detail can make Waxman long-winded: Do we really need to know that a curator wears light blue eye shadow or that the president of a museum has a disco ring tone on his cell phone?

But the questions Waxman raises are real, and her proposals to remedy the situation are the start of a much-needed discussion.

Reagan Upshaw is a New York writer. E-mail him at

This article appeared on page E – 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle

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