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American Scientist
Sunday, April 26th, 2009
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Loot: The Battle Over the Stolen Treasures of the Ancient World

by

Looters

A review by Jenifer Neils

On April 19th, 2005, a Russian Antonov 124 transport touched down on a runway in Axum, Ethiopia. Its cargo was the middle section of a 1,700-year-old, 78-foot-tall, 160-ton granite obelisk, which had been removed from Ethiopia in the 1930s by Benito Mussolini, who erected it in front of his newly built Ministry of Italian Africa in central Rome. The cost to the Italians for disassembling this monument and transporting it back to Ethiopia in three parts was reportedly $7.7 million.

The obelisk of Axum was not the only piece of cultural property returned to its country of origin in 2005. The British Museum, which since 1944 had had in its possession a red cedar ceremonial mask that Kwakwaka'wakw tribesmen of British Columbia had worn at potlatches in the early 20th century, sent this artifact back to British Columbia on long-term loan to the U'Mista Cultural Society in Alert Bay.

These two voluntary acts have garnered little publicity and rate barely a mention in the proliferation of new books devoted to the "battles" over heritage. Yet they demonstrate that the tide is turning in favor of countries and peoples who seek to reclaim objects that they consider to be their cultural patrimony, regardless of whether the object was removed legally.

Loot, by journalist Sharon Waxman, and Who Owns Antiquity?, by James Cuno, take decidedly different approaches to the complex problems relating to the archaeological material that is at the forefront of the disputes over cultural property. Waxman focuses on spectacular cases involving high-profile museums -- for example, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, which have recently returned valuable works of ancient art to Italy, Greece and Turkey. Having previously authored a book on maverick Hollywood directors, she here turns her attention to some of the more flamboyant personalities of the antiquities world, detailing the exploits of notorious thieves (or saviors of the past, depending on your perspective) as well as those of contemporary players -- namely, well-known museum directors, curators and dealers.

Cuno, who is director of the Art Institute of Chicago, is the only person holding such a post who actually writes books defending the mores of his profession. His approach is more scholarly than Waxman's but also more irritating, because the book consists mainly of a diatribe against increasing nationalism throughout the world, which he believes has prompted the actions that archaeologically rich countries have taken to protect and retain their antiquities. Although he strives to be ecumenical, pulling his examples from China, Nigeria, Turkey and Italy, his arguments are one-sided and hence surprisingly narrow. He supports the now outdated and largely rejected practices of museums that acquire antiquities without documented provenance. And he utterly fails to provide any other perspectives, especially those of archaeologists.

Both books deal with personalities. Waxman retells the much-rehearsed story of Lord Elgin, the ambassador to the Ottoman empire who despoiled the Acropolis not only of the well-known Parthenon sculptures but also of random columns and sculptures from other monuments of classical Athens; these are now the jewels of the British Museum. Cuno describes the travels of more recherche individuals, such as Langdon Warner, a Harvard professor of Chinese art. In 1924 Warner visited the Mogao cave temples in northwest China, which have the largest collection of Buddhist mural art in the country. He came home with a Tang Dynasty stucco sculpture of a kneeling bodhisattva from one cave (this was a purchase he negotiated) and 12 painted wall fragments from another (Cuno says that these were "rather awkwardly" removed). Today, both the Acropolis and the Mogao caves are World Heritage sites.

The value of these archaeological sites resides not only in their artistic achievements, but also in the wealth of information they provide about the culture of their age. The Acropolis once had inscriptions carved on marble slabs detailing the transactions of the treasury, and the Mogao caves contained hundreds of Buddhist manuscripts; much of this site-specific material was removed long ago by European travelers and collectors. That's a great shame: Had these sites remained more complete, archaeologists would have more readily been able to understand their impressive past.

Both books organize their material along geographical lines. Waxman devotes part 1 of Loot to Egypt and its despoliation by the likes of Napoleon (under whose command the Rosetta Stone was brought to light) and Giovanni Belzoni, the Italian weight lifter who discovered the Temple of Abu Simbel. Belzoni also managed to cart off from Thebes a colossal head of Ramses II, which now resides in the British Museum.

Part 2 is devoted to Turkey and the intriguing tale of the Lydian hoard, which consists of 219 Greek gold and silver objects that the Metropolitan Museum of Art bought in the late 1960s. The museum left these to cool off in its basement for years before exhibiting them, at which point Turkey sued for their return. Part 3 deals with Greece and its long controversy with the British Museum over the marbles taken by Lord Elgin. And the focus of part 4 is Italy and its pursuit of the looted objects the Getty Museum acquired, as well as the ongoing prosecution in Rome of the Getty's former antiquities curator.

Cuno covers some of the same ground (his third chapter deals with Turkey), but he goes farther afield (China) and also delves more deeply into the rise of nations such as Italy, Turkey and Iraq. He attempts to demonstrate that their cultural identities are modern constructs. He points out, for example, that the Egyptians formerly thought of themselves chiefly as Muslims and only more recently as a people whose ancestors were responsible for the pyramids. He seems to argue that because these identities are recent and nationalistic they should have no bearing on claims for antiquities, which he believes to be the heritage of all.

Neither book gives much attention to the perspective of archaeologists, who have played an important role in these developments. The clandestine looting of sites that is the source for the illicit art market results in the destruction of all factual information about the context of the particular artifact. Greek vases that appear on the market almost certainly originated in ancient tomb assemblages about which all scientific knowledge is forever lost. And even if we know the original location of the works of art, like the Parthenon sculptures or the Mogao murals, our understanding and appreciation are diminished by the incomplete nature of the ensemble.

What Cuno provides that Waxman's book lacks is excellent documentation of the various international agencies (such as UNESCO) and conventions (beginning with the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, which the U.S. Senate did not ratify until 2008) that have been drafted to protect and preserve antiquities. Many of the more recent conventions stress the rights and obligations of nations to protect archaeological sites and artifacts located within their borders, but according to Cuno these "nationalist, retentionist cultural property laws" fail to protect our ancient heritage and "conspire against our appreciation of the nature of culture as mongrel, overlapping, and a dynamic force for uniting rather than dividing humankind" -- which is the mission of the encyclopedic art museum. What Cuno and most other writers on the topic fail to see is that museums in countries such as Egypt, China and Turkey are a different species altogether from our universal art museums; they are more akin to our historical societies, which seek to present the history and culture of a region in the context in which it was produced.

To the question of who owns antiquity, Cuno's answer is "all mankind." But today the artifacts on the market or those recently acquired by art museums are largely looted from archaeological sites and exported illegally from their countries of origin. Now that some of these countries -- Italy, for example -- have documentation obtained from dealers' papers that these artifacts are in fact stolen, they are having little trouble in persuading museums to return them. And these museums in turn are adopting new acquisition policies that are in accord with the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export, and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property.

Although Cuno states that this change has had no effect on the looting of sites, he offers no concrete evidence to back up his statement. Both authors unfortunately set up an either/or scenario: either universal museums filled with antiquities from the entire world or national collections of locally excavated antiquities. Other options, such as long-term loans, are possible and indeed have been generously offered by Italy to those museums that have returned looted Italian artifacts.

If one is looking for a good whodunit that deals with prominent and colorful personalities such as the current secretary-general of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, Zahi Hawass (who has called for nothing less than the return of the bust of Nefertiti from Berlin and the Rosetta Stone from London), then Loot is the book to read. In fact, a more apt title for Waxman's book might be Looters, because they, rather than the loot itself, dominate her text.

Cuno is a museum director whose writ is clearly to defend the acquisition practices of the major western museums in light of increasing pressure to refrain from purchasing objects of dubious or no provenance. The public might be better served by less atavistic museum professionals, ones who could address our changing times and evolving ethical standards and offer creative solutions for the enjoyment of our collective past.

Jenifer Neils is Ruth Coulter Heede Professor of Art History at Case Western Reserve University, with a secondary appointment in the classics department. Her most recent books are The Parthenon Frieze (2001) and The Parthenon from Antiquity to the Present (2005), both from Cambridge University Press.


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