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The Met & the chariot from Monteleone Di Spoleto

Following some coverage [1] a few months ago, the issues for & against the restitution of an Etruscan chariot to an Umbrian village.

New Jersey Times [2]

New Jersey Times
Carry the chariot home
Saturday, April 28, 2007

When Hamilton Township Mayor Glen Gilmore visited the village of Monteleone Di Spoleto, the people of the village at a public meeting pleaded for help in getting back an ancient Etruscan chariot, a priceless work of art found in their village (“Relic sparks a family affair,” April 11). The chariot is on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, where officials claim that they paid for it. They have since refused to make further comment.

It has been the custom over the years for wealthy patrons of the arts to go around the world and scoop up works of art for peanuts from destitute and unsophisticated people. Many times, the treasures are spoils of war; sometimes they have simply been appropriated. That is how art treasures left China and Egypt and Peru and Mexico.

One of the most egregious examples of the plundering of another country’s art is the story of the Elgin Marbles taken from the Parthenon 200 years ago in a deal with Turkey, the country that ruled Greece for a brief time. Not only did bribes enter the picture, but Lord Elgin paid a pittance for the priceless Parthenon statuary and friezes he sent to England. Greece has been demanding their return ever since. (See “Imperial Spoils: The Curious Case of the Elgin Marbles” by Christopher Hitchens.)

Some very interesting points Hitchens makes concerning the Elgin Marbles describe the specious arguments that the British have used to justify their expropriation: If all artifacts were returned, museums would have to close; more people are able to see them in the British Museum; they are less prone to pollution damage; they are well cared for; they paid for them. The suggestion was made by one of The Times’ readers that he would prefer to see the chariot remain in the Metropolitan Museum for some of the very same reasons — reasons that I find arro gant, patronizing and unconvinc ing.

The King Tut exhibit, which is enjoying its second U.S. tour in 30 years, is only one example that destroys all but the final argument. Museums draw enormous crowds with their traveling exhibits that, by visiting multiple sites, draw people from distances too far removed to see them in a single location. Even when traveling, exhibition items are meticulously preserved. As for paying for the artifacts, ownership of expropriated property is dubious, even when efforts are made to legitimize it using the name of a highly regarded museum. The net effect of such an action is to render questionable the esteem felt for the institution.

More than three-quarters of the world’s art treasures are located in Italy. The Italians are the world’s greatest restorers and preservers of art and ancient artifacts, and they are perfectly capable of caring for their chariot as well. The Etruscan chariot does not belong in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It should be restored to its rightful owners, the people of Monteleone Di Spo leto, who beg for its return.

Michael J. Rovello is a retired Hamilton Township school principal.