Whose art is it, anyway?
That is the question at the heart of this carefully-crafted and insightful analysis of the ongoing battle of the ownership of antiquities from Greek, Egyptian and other ancient societies. Sharon Waxman has done an admirable job of covering the key personalities and issues, never allowing herself to be distracted and accomplishing the impossible -- taking a passionate view of the importance of these objects to art and history without losing sight that their is no simple answer to that fundamental question of their ownership.
Waxman profiles both sides of the debate, the activists and government officials in countries such as Egypt, Turkey and Italy who are lobbying for the return of everything from the Elgin Marbles (hacked off the Acropolis some two centuries ago) to unique Etruscan artifacts likely looted and smuggled overseas within the last decade. There are no heroes in this saga. Museum directors continue to duck the question of how some of the objects on display ended up in their galleries and argue that their collections form part of the broader "human heritage" that only institutions in giant Western cities from New York to Berlin can adequately care for and display. On the other side are those pressing for the return of these objects so that they can be displayed as part of the heritage of the country where they were created and, millennia later, rediscovered.
But... What happens when objects are repatriated? Waxman takes the reader to the site of nearly-empty museums in Luxor, Egypt and Antalya, Turkey, filled with precious objects but devoid of local visitors. (Even the son of Zahi Hawass, Egypt's antiquities honcho and chief agitator for the return of the Rosetta Stone, among other items, is more interested in Islam and the country's more immediate and, to many, relevant history than he is in the idolatrous Pharoahs and the temples to Horus or Hathor that they left behind them.) She also tells of one Turkish archaeologist who is facing trial for the theft of priceless gold objects from the "Lydian Hoard", finally returned by New York's Met to Turkey amidst great fanfare about a decade ago. Is returning the objects to countries where they can't be protected, cared for or displayed the right strategy, especially if those objects really have no connection to the society inhabiting the country today? (Today's Turks, for instance, aren't descended from the Greek, Phrygian, Lydian, Lycian or other societies that once inhabited their nation; they arrived from further east centuries later.) But, just as the reader becomes sympathetic to the arguments of museum curators, Waxman switches gears to show the ruthlessness with which the latter built their collections and the intellectual arrogance of their arguments. Nor, as she shows in connection with the Elgin Marbles, have they alwasy cared for their objects in their care.
Ultimately, there are no easy answers and Waxman wisely avoids the trap of joining one camp or the other. In the final few pages, she advocates a new paradigm that may prove utopian but at least offers those of us who may be tempted to join the public debate a more reasonable middle way.
The only flaw in this ambitious but thorough and lively overview of the ongoing battle is Waxman's failure to address, except in passing, the role of private collectors in the antiquities trade. Public collections have gradually adopted a much more restrictive approach to purchasing antiquities that don't have a clear provenance or history, and are at least engaging in this debate with the countries of origin. But private collectors have tended to be less scrupulous and, by their nature, their activities are less visible. Waxman notes that the high prices these collectors are still willing to pay for black market objects are likely to encourage archaelogical looting; it would have been valuable and interesting to have explored this with some of these collectors or their art advisors.
Anyone interested in learning more about this looting should turn to the work co-written by Peter Watson & Cecilia TodeschiniThe Medici Conspiracy: The Illicit Journey of Looted Antiquities-- From Italy's Tomb Raiders to the World's Greatest Museums If you're more interested in the debate over how the past is represented and who owns it, The Future of the Past by Alexander Stille is excellent and beautifully written.