February 10, 2006

Whose art is it anyway?

Posted at 9:58 pm in Elgin Marbles, Similar cases

Prompted by the imminent return of the Euphronios Krater, an extensive & interesting article looks at many different aspects of cases involving looted artworks around the world, in particular the Elgin Marbles.

The Why Files

The looting of art

Vase invasion

A large clay pot is decorated with figures showing Greek mythology.After almost 34 years, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art is set to return the 2,500 year-old Euphronios krater to Italy. This Greek vase, something even the artless would recognize as one spanking fine hunk of crockery, has been high-profile since the Met got it in 1972. As the New York Times reported Feb. 5, 2006, “Thomas P. F. Hoving, then the museum’s director, pronounced the krater, used for mixing wine and water at banquets, to be of such high quality that ‘the histories of art will have to be rewritten'” (see “The Mysterious Trail …” in the bibliography).

In fact, it’s the history of art looting that may need revision. Less than a year after the Met snagged the swag, the New York Times had already begun to eat away at the museum’s story of how the crock was acquired. For starters, the man named as the previous owner said he’d never seen that fine dish.

Experts suspected then, and suspect even more strongly now, the $1-million vase had been looted from an archeological site near Rome shortly before the Met bought it. Why, they asked, would such a beauty have been closeted for decades, as the Met maintained?

The august museum and its elite director claimed their vase was virtuous because it had been removed from Italy before 1939, when a strict law foreclosed export of antiquities. But Italy has claimed its antiquities as national property since the country opened its doors as a unified state, said Malcolm Bell, vice-president for professional responsibilities at the Archaeological Institute of America. “Tradition for 200 years in Italy has been to lay claim to antiquities under the soil,” and to consider them property of the Italian people.

Meretricious Met

Perhaps aware a controversy was brewing, Met director Hoving (see “The Chase…” in the bibliography) wrote in 1975 that “Procedures already in practice at the Metropolitan and other institutions attempt to provide proper controls and at the same time permit and, indeed, encourage collecting.” But the chapter that mentioned the krater was foggy to the point of obfuscation about its origin. “Only three years ago, the finest vase by Euphronios was brought to the museum …”

Now it sounds as if the krater will complete the transatlantic round trip with a flight back to Italy. The stunning reversal by one of the world’s great museums capped a gusher of news about the collection, expropriation and looting of antiquities. Some highlights:

  • In Rome, Marion True, until last fall a curator at the enormously endowed J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, is on trial for illegal sale of antiquities. Her codefendant is Robert Hecht, the art dealer who sold the krater to the Met in 1972. Italy wants 30 items back from Getty, and Greece, four.
  • The British Museum continues to claim the Elgin Marbles, which Britain removed from the Parthenon in Athens in the early 1800s. The government of Greece desperately wants the sculptures back.
  • And the government of Peru has petitioned the Yale Peabody Museum for return of Inca artifacts removed by a swashbuckling Yale archeologist in the early 1900s.

You’re in a famous museum, admiring a Greek vase and an Inca amulet. Did the museum “benefit” from some night-time shovel work at an archeological site?

A changing of the tide

The looting of archeological sites is far more archaic than the term “archeology” itself. The threat of looters explains why Egypt’s pharaohs went to such great lengths to hide their tombs — which mostly got robbed anyway.

After a conquest, looting was pretty much a reflex just about everywhere, as far as we can tell. Not too long ago the (usually European) adventurer-archeologist became a hero exploring uncharted domains and returning with the hold full of booty. The best stuff ended up in museums — the Metropolitan, the Berlin Museum, and above all, the British Museum.

It was a chase that some likened to big-game hunting, a parallel that former Metropolitan director Thomas Hoving accentuated by naming his 1975 book about acquiring art, “The Chase, the Capture.” He described the thrill of bringing home the goodies this way: “The chase and the capture of a great work of art is one of the most exciting endeavors in life — as dramatic, emotional , and fulfilling as a love affair.”

Acquisitions were a hush-hush affair. Buyers did not want publicity, which could attract competitors and jack up the price. Many sellers wanted to remain anonymous. Many blamed the tax collectors for their reticence, but archeologists say it often stemmed from the fact that many objects had recently been touched by the looter’s shovel. The changing international attitude toward cultural property appeared in a 1954 United Nations treaty. Written after the wholesale looting of Europe’s artwork during World War II, the Hague Convention defined significant antiquities as “cultural property” and the “national patrimony” of states where they were found.

In recent years, the Metropolitan and British Museum have been overshadowed by the wildly wealthy J. Paul Getty Museum, which has spent Getty’s oil money on a formidable collection. The Getty Villa, focused on antiquities, has just reopened after a $275-million renovation, in Malibu, Calif. Marion True, who’s now on trial in Rome, was a Getty curator until last fall.

Theft from the Earth?

The trial in Rome and the Metropolitan’s high-profile about-face in New York have put the issue of antiquity theft into the headlines. And that’s just where a noisy group of archeologists would like to see it. The American Archaeological Institute sees theft from archeological sites as “a kind of theft from the Earth,” says Bell, who handles the issue for the group, and supervises a big dig at Morgantina, Sicily, “which not only damages the place where the work is found, but also the work, by depriving it of its history and what can be learned from that.”

While looting can never be halted entirely, Bell says, “we are engaged in a new effort to put a stop to it, diminish it. The idea is to educate the public… to make people aware of the damage that is done to archeological sites, and to the works themselves. And the public include the members of the boards of trustees of museums, and local people as well.”

We can only wonder what is going at the British Museum, proprietor of the disputed Elgin Marbles. Even though these sculptural panels have been in London since the early 1800s, Bell says they deserve to go back. “The Elgin marbles, in my view, should be returned. The Parthenon is supremely important, and it has a right to wholeness. It should not have been dismembered.”

Where to draw the line?

The British Museum and the Metropolitan are crammed with antiquities from other lands. Could they be cleaned out by wholesale repatriation? Probably not, says Jenifer Neils, a professor of art history at Case Western Reserve University, because many of the older expeditions were legit. “In the old days, museums teamed with host countries, and as part of the deal, the museums got a huge collection, wonderful stuff, but if you go to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and look at the object … you have a picture of it coming out of the ground. The context is known; it was all above board and legal.”

While museums may suggest that, once started, repatriations will continue until the shelves are bare, Neils calls that “open-the-floodgate mentality on the part of museums a smokescreen. The requests are very specific arguments for very specific objects. Turkey is not walking in and saying ‘we want everything back from the Berlin Museum. But we do want some Hittite artifacts, that are significant to our indigenous cultures.'”

A second side argument concerns private collectors. If museums stop collecting, will individuals buy up the booty and lock it away? If so, then museums’ withdrawal from the market would be harmful, not just useless, since it would accelerate the privatization of culture. “There is this argument that if museums don’t do it, private collectors may take up the slack,” says Neils. “That’s a specious argument.” orange and black greek vase and textShe concedes that looters sell to museums and collectors, “but In most cases it’s museums that are really paying the looters’ salaries. By the fact that museums are buying from dealers, who are acquiring from looters, that is encouraging looting. If museums stopped buying, looters would have to find another profession.”

Difficult cases

More than one expert we spoke with stressed that even during the conversation, sites were being looted in the Middle East, Central and South America, and elsewhere. So why are prosecutions so rare? For one thing, in poor countries, an artifact’s cash value greatly exceeds its historical and cultural value, making looting often culturally acceptable. But there are also legal problems, says Patty Gerstenblith, a professor of law at DePaul University (Chicago) and co chair of the American Bar Association’s cultural property committee. “It’s very difficult to get the kind of evidence you need. The burden is upon the government to prove beyond a reasonable doubt. If the prosecution lacks written evidence, it’s very difficult to prove.”

A welter of national and international laws may be relevant, Gerstenblith says. “It depends on what law the person is breaking, it depends on what country was the source, and when the object left.” The Roman Empire, she says, covered something like 39 modern countries, making it hard to know if a Roman object came from Italy, or a dozen other countries.

Without some really clear documentation, it’s often very difficult to prove a case, she says. But governments may find it easier to seize antiquities. “It’s a lower standard of proof, and it’s easier to do.”

Inconsistencies, paradoxes

The hubbub about seeing antiquities as “cultural property” traces back to a 1970 treaty of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Office (UNESCO). The Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property defined “cultural property” as “property, which on religious or secular grounds, is specifically designated by each state as being of importance for archaeology, prehistory, history, literature, art or science.” The treaty obliges signing states to regulate or prohibit transfers of such material, and to help other states recover cultural property. The United States signed in 1983.

It’s a compelling idea: Cultural property belongs to the source nation, or at least to whatever nation that exists where the objects are found. But the specifics can be confusing:

  • Cultural property makes the most sense if modern people and governments have a connection to the antiquities found on their soil. But that’s seldom true: Nobody knows, for example, who descended from the Anasazis, who built major buildings in the American Southwest about a millennium ago, and then disappeared.
  • Whose cultural property would be contained in a Spanish galleon that is salvaged from the Florida coast? UNESCO would say the sunken gold and silver belongs to the United States. But the shiny metal was mined by Indian slaves in Spanish mines in South America; the Spaniards, surely guilty of genocide by modern standards, were shipping their plunder back to the seat of empire in Europe. Who has title to this stuff — the Spanish, who owned it? The divers who pulled it from the seafloor? The U.S. government, which did not exist when the ship sank, and whose territory may have played little or no role in the shipment? Or, if fairness is our goal, should the booty be returned to indigenous people in Mexico or Bolivia?
  • Does the national government have the ability to maintain the objects? The British Museum houses a female figure called a caryatid that supported the roof of a building at the Acropolis until the British removed it in the early 1800s, which contravenes today’s law. Although most of the building was destroyed in the Greek war for independence from Turkey in 1821-33, one part survived. But the on-site caryatids are severely weathered compared to the stone lady in the British Museum.
  • Or consider Afghanistan in the late 1990s. Museum curators, nervous about Taliban hostility toward non-Islamic art, wanted to move priceless pieces to a purpose-built museum in Switzerland. With the works already crated, the curators sought an exception to UNESCO’s “stay in the home country” dictum. UNESCO refused, and Taliban enforcers “responded to these extraordinary artifacts by taking out mallets and pulverizing them,” according to Kwame Anthony Appiah, a professor of philosophy at Princeton University. As Appiah wrote, demonstrates consistency as the hobgoblin of small minds: “Would the ideologues of cultural nativism, those experts who insist that archaeological artifacts are meaningless outside their land of origin, find solace in the fact that these works were destroyed by Afghan hands, on Afghan soil?” (see “Whose Culture…” in the bibliography). (We’ll talk shortly to Appiah about a non-UNESCO approach to cultural property…)

Looting is not just something that happens late at night, or when a bribed cop looks the other way. Rampant looting followed the U.S. occupation of Iraq in 2002. Jeffrey Spurr, a Middle-Eastern librarian at Harvard University, says more than typewriters or desks got lifted. He told us archival material and rare books from the national library and archives was stored in a basement. Then “parties unknown, aware that valuable material were there, stole what they desired, and broke the pipes to flood the rest, covering their tracks completely.”

The loot presumably included the nation’s most important ancient manuscripts and books, Spurr says, but “it’s difficult to establish exactly what has gone.” After a “series of troubled attempts to deal with the books, they were removed to an above-ground venue, where they sat for weeks growing mold.” The Coalition Provisional Authority provided money for refrigerators, but not freezers. “Freezing is necessary for wet, damaged works on paper, and that was not achieved,” Spurr says. Since the looted material has apparently not appeared on the international market, Spurr assumes it’s being stored until it’s safe to sell it.

But why should we care about some oldy-moldy books written in languages we can’t even read? “Because a country’s history is embodied in the cultural institutions that contain the manuscripts, that validate the historical knowledge,” says Spurr, who is leading an effort to salvage Iraq’s libraries. “It’s in the same sense that you would care if the great institutions in Washington DC, the Smithsonian, for example, were destroyed.”

The catch, of course, is this: An ancient book or other artifact can survive 1,000 years, and then perish in five years of war.

Endangered antiquities, modern solutions

If looting is a logical outcome of the current system, maybe we should deem antiquities guilty until proven innocent. “The gold standard” for objects that a museum considers buying — or even accepting as gifts — is to assume that they were looted illegally, says Richard Leventhal, director of the University of Pennsylvania Museum. “They should only be accepted in collections, or bought by museums, if there is absolutely irrefutable proof… that they came out of the host country, pre-1983, when the United States signed the UNESCO convention, or preferably earlier.”

A simpler solution is to stop collecting, as the Penn museum has done. Although the museum does accept donations, “Before the acquiring commission would consider it, we ask, is it legal? Should it be out of the country of origin?”

Bell, who speaks for the American Institute of Archaeology, concurs. “The Met, the Getty, the Cleveland Museum of Art, have splendid collections of antiquities. It isn’t as if antiquities should be added all the time. Maybe they should be buying from living artists… The art of the past is finite, and because the process of obtaining it is destructive, maybe those purchases should be reduced.”

Both a borrower and a lender be…

Long-term loans are one way to mesh conflicting demands for ownership and exhibition, says Bell, with the rich-country institution sponsoring scientific research into the object, but the source country retaining ownership and eventually getting it back.

As we’ve noted, attitudes toward collecting and looting do change over time. Over the last century, archeology has become infused with an ethos of preservation, a respect for the rights of other cultures, and the advent of sophisticated analytical techniques. Looking back, the archeology of 150 or 75 years ago seems rather close to outright plundering. “Until about the middle of the 20th century, you could not tell the looters from the archeologists,” says law professor Gerstenblith. “The science of archeology only started to develop at the end of the 19th century; the application of scientific technology, more like the mid-20th century. Before this time, it did not matter how you took it out of the ground, maybe it was against the patrimony law, but from a public interest perspective, it didn’t make much difference.”

The significance of methodical archeology on undisturbed sites, Gerstenblith says, emerges from the recent discovery of remains of African slaves in Mexico, dating to roughly 100 years after Columbus sailed to the New World. “Through this careful excavation, we were able to change our understanding of history. It looks like slaves were being brought to the Americas 100 to 150 years earlier than we thought. If that site had been looted, you would never have that evidence preserved.”

In return for a few trinkets, the secret past of an entire people could have remained secret.

A contrary voice

Archeologists broadly support UNESCO’s simple equation, cultural property = national patrimony. But The Why Files chanced upon a contrary opinion from Kwame Anthony Appiah, a professor of philosophy at Princeton University, who proposes a different approach (see “Whose Culture…” in the bibliography). Instead of insisting that antiquities remain at home, he prefers that countries regulate them in a way that promotes local museums, allow some exports to foreign museums, and earns money for local people at the same time.

Such a system could help in a country like Mali, where thousands of Djenne-jeno terra cottas were looted during the 1980s. The looted sites were not documented, and our picture of the culture that made the terra-cottas remains foggy.

Mali is fourth from the bottom on the United Nation’s Human Development Index, and Appiah observes that the pressing national problem is not a lack of ancient art; it’s a lack of money. Any cure to the looting crisis, he indicates, must take that into account.

The Why Files Caught up with Appiah by phone, then edited our conversation into interview format…

The Why Files:
You grew up in Ghana. How has that affected your view of antiquities?

Kwame Anthony Appiah:
Ghana was home, but I went to England at nine for boarding school. I grew up with lots of mostly Akan artifacts around the house. My mother bought brass weights and pots, starting in the 1950s. People were selling their collections because they didn’t use them any more. These brass figures were used to weigh gold dust, which was the currency. Once gold dust was replaced by coins, people did not need the weights, so they sold them. As a child, I would go on the veranda, the traders would open up a cloth, and there they would be. They were commonplace objects, but I liked them, some were beautiful, very finely made. My mother acquired a lot of knowledge, and after a while, people interested in African art would come to look at her collection. When I started writing a book about globalization, it struck me that the exchange of art is one of the main ways in which we interact with other cultures. What was important about art did not have to do with thinking of it as belonging to some group.

Museums and archeologists say cultural property should largely remain in the country where it was found. What’s your take on this?

Ripping off is bad, but because my model case [the Akan brasses] was where people sold objects because they wanted to, the rip-off argument did not apply. Somebody put an awful lot of effort into making the Akan brasses, but the people who inherited them clearly did not think of them as particularly precious, and wanted to sell them.

UNESCO says antiquities are national patrimony, but you write about inconsistencies in that view [including the Afghanistan example already discussed, and an 1874 British expedition in Kumasi, Ghana. The colonists thought they were collecting, their actions would now be against international law.]

These things were taken in the context of warfare; it was assumed that the law of war allowed you to take them. The English did not think it was illegal, and to the Asante, conquering and looting were a basis for collection as well. [Some of what the British were procuring had been “collected” during previous Asante conquests — in modern terms, the Brits were looting loot.] My Asante ancestors did not think that was illegal, they thought it was perfectly proper. [Note: Asante is also spelled Ashanti.]

Just because something is found in one country, you don’t think it is necessarily “national patrimony”…

National patrimony is exactly the wrong way to see it. In Italy, people are looting things that were made by the ancient Greeks. They were not made by the Italian people. Italy has only been a country for 150 years; it’s nutty to say this stuff belongs to the Italian people. [In his article, Appiah put it this way: “I confess I hear the sound of Etruscans and Greeks turning over in their dusty graves: patrimony, here equals imperialism plus time.” However, he does agree that Italian law should govern activities on Italian soil.]

Doesn’t the UNESCO treaty protect local cultures from exploitation, the destruction of heritage?

No. What is going on is bad, because we humans lose information that would be important to understand these objects. But the pieties about national heritage have gotten in the way of productive sharing of these things, and would lead, if you follow the museum director’s view, to thinking that American museums should contain only native American and American-made art, and all Norwegian art should be in Norway, and all Nigerian art should be in Nigeria. It leads to a bunch of artistic ghettos.

What might be a better approach to handling cultural property, antiquities?

You should know where it came out of the ground, that’s part of trying to figure out what the object is. But under the current scheme, if you reveal where something was found, you are unable to do anything with it. Under my scheme, you would take the object to the national museum and tell them what you knew. They could decide to buy it, or let you keep it. Everybody would get more information about the object — and the culture — and the museum system would know what is there. [Appiah also suggested taxing antiquity exports to support local acquisitions…]

Nothing in international law prevents a country from establishing this mechanism, does it?

No. In Ghana, the law requires export licenses for antiquities, which means a museum person gets to see everything going out of the country, although I may be only person in Ghana who has ever used it. [It’s hard to fight the global consensus about cultural property.] The other side is so extreme, and they are in charge. The archeologists and their professional body endorse these strange views. We have all these laws, rules that are supposed to stop it, so why are the looters still digging? Because they can, because the objects are rightly regarded as objects of great interest and value. Some people will still procure them, especially when the objects are in poor countries and the people who want them are rich.

Poor people don’t care much about this stuff, but they do care about getting some money, do care about feeding their kids… They may even know it’s illegal, but they almost certainly don’t think it’s bad, how are you going to persuade them? Significant cultural works are a contribution to the culture of the world. … The rule should protect the object and make it available to people who will benefit from experiencing it.”


The Chase, the Capture: Collecting at the Metropolitan, Thomas Hoving et al, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1975.

Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers, Kwame Anthony Appiah, W.W. Norton, 2006.

The Ethics of Collecting Cultural Property, Phyllis Mauch Messenger, ed., University of New Mexico Press, 1999.

Getty Official in Italy for Talks on Contested Art; Christopher Reynolds, Los Angeles Time January 27, 2006 The Getty’s Italian Job, Malcolm Bell III, The New York Times, November 28, 2005.

Illicit Antiquities: The Theft of Culture and the Extinction of Archaeology, Neil Brodie and Kathryn Walker Tubb, eds., Routledge, 2002.

The Mysterious Trail of a Treasure, Retraced, LAWRENCE VAN GELDER, The New York Times, February 5, 2006.

Whose Culture Is It? Kwame Anthony Appiah, The New York Review of Books, Feb. 9, 2006.


Kwame Anthony Appiah
Professor of philosophy, Princeton University

Malcolm Bell
Professor of art history, University of Virginia
Vice-president for professional responsibilities, Archaeological Institute of America

Patty Gerstenblith, Professor of law, DePaul University (Chicago)
Co chair, cultural property committee, American Bar Association

Richard Leventhal
Director, University Museum, University of Pennsylvania

Jenifer Neils
Professor of art history, Case Western Reserve University

Jeffrey B. Spurr
Islamic and Middle East specialist, Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture, Fine Arts Library, Harvard University

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1 Comment »

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