The Controversy over Who Owns the Art of the World
Recently I read a book called “Loot” by Sharon Waxman on the battle over the stolen treasures of the Ancient World. Here are some of the issues and questions raised.
The museum world has changed. Museums are no longer the
benevolent institutions that preserve, display, and educate the world about art. They continue to do that, of course, but today there are also threats, lawsuits, criminal prosecutions, and public embarrassment over who should own the antiquities that represent man’s heritage.
Over the last centuries antiquities have been ripped from the ground and shipped across the world. Many now reside in the great museums of the West—the Louvre, the British Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Should they remain there where, in general, they are exhibited and preserved with care, accessible to visitors from the
world over? Or should they be returned to their countries of origin, whose demands for restitution have grown ever more vociferous?
Egypt wants the return of the Rosetta Stone from the British Museum and the bust of Nefertiti from the Egyptian Museum
in Berlin. Greece wants the return of the Elgin Marbles from the British Museum. It is building a new museum at the base of the Acropolis to house them.
Perhaps the most aggressive country of all, Italy has waged a campaign against museums, dealers, and collectors for return of artifacts it claims were illegally excavated and
smuggled from the country. This culminated in a 2-year criminal trial of the American curator, Marion True, of the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.
The modern restitution question first arose in the 1970s as archaeologists, journalists, and public officials realized that looting was not a thing of the past. The growing market in the West was fueling destruction of archaeological sites. There was collusion along the entire chain of actors in smuggled antiquities—from tomb robbers to restorers, upscale dealers, auction houses, and wealthy collectors. There also was a lack of clear international law to regulate all of this.
The countries that demand restitution must face their own shortcomings. Too often their museums are underfunded and disorganized. Curating and inventories are almost nonexistent. They often can’t safeguard the treasures under their current control. Corruption is rife and looting continues.
Surely one of the biggest looters of all was Napoleon with his conquests across Europe, foremost in Italy. Caravans of artwork were carted off to Paris and are in the Louvre today, where many famous works from Italy now reside, like the Dying Gaul. Precious few museums reveal even today where they obtained their art. Obfuscation and hypocrisy abound.
How did Egyptian obelisks end up in the plazzas of the Vatican? Should the 4 bronze horses on the roof of the church of San Marco be returned to Constantinople? As aggressive as Italy is in its request for the return of its art, like other countries, Italy is slow to respond to restitution requests from other countries for looted goods. Italy dragged its feet when Libia asked for the return of a marble statue of Venus taken in 1912. Yet, it’s hard to imagine that marble statues of Venus are in short supply in Italy.
Italy is burdened and blessed with a staggering quantity of artistic treasures. A stroll along the streets of Rome take visitors through Roman, Medieval, Renaissance, and pontifical epochs. Remnants of Greek and Etruscan civilization are everywhere. Conservation is daunting.
And daunting it was for the Getty Museum when Italy criminally accused its curator for having conspired to receive stolen goods. It was unusual to charge a curator and not the director of the Getty or the chairman of the Board. And it was also ironic because the Getty had the most restrictive acquisition policy of any large American museum. Italy was sending a message to all museums: “Give us our stuff or this will happen to you.”
The trial was agonizingly and typically slow. It managed to meet only once every few months. In the end, the statute of limitations expired, and perhaps we will never know if Marion True was a scapegoat or a scofflaw. But the demands for returned art were daunting for the Getty, which returned 40 masterworks, including a large statue of Aphrodite, a marble sculpture of 2 griffins attacking a doe, an Etruscan statue of a man and woman dancing, plus numerous amphorae, calyxes, kraters, and lekythos.
Is this historic justice – the righting of wrongs from the age of imperialism up to now? Or is it a modern settling of scores by frustrated, less powerful nations? The battle over ancient treasures—is it about identity, the right of nations to reclaim their tangible symbols? Do these battles undermine the purpose of museums to exchange culture, build bridges, and promote mutual understanding? And the final question, would all the major museums be empty if all looted art had to be returned?