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Who Should Own the World’s Antiquities?

See the related article, The Affair of the Chinese Bronze Heads.


Last June, the directors of the leading art museums of the United States agreed to limit their acquisitions of antiquities to works that have left their “country of probable modern discovery” before 1970, or that were exported legally after that date. On the face of it, the decision, issued by the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), did no more than update guidelines for ancient art—one of a number of such policy refinements by the association in recent years. In fact, however, it announced a tectonic shift in museum thinking about collecting art and artifacts of the distant past, a change that was unimaginable even five years ago.

For one, the moratorium implicitly concedes that the antiquities trade is rife with works that recently left the ground and were plundered, or illegally exported, or both. It also stakes out a position that goes well beyond the requirements of US law. But far more important, in choosing 1970 as a cutoff date—the symbolic year of a UNESCO convention against the illicit circulation of material deemed by particular nations to be their cultural property—the museums have eliminated the possibility of acquiring most of the ancient art available for sale today. In effect, the museum directors have made it clear that, for American museums, collecting antiquities has largely come to an end; and with it the system of private collectors and dealers that has sustained it since the late nineteenth century.

What accounts for this remarkable decision? After all, the conflict between large museums, which have depended on the free trade of art and artifacts to build their collections, and archaeology-rich nations, which have long sought to restrict or prohibit such trade, is not new. In the past, museums tended to dismiss charges by archaeologists and foreign governments that their collecting practices have abetted the plunder of ancient sites. Indeed, as recently as 2002, a group of top American and European museum directors signed a “Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums” that in no uncertain terms defended the dispersal of antiquities to encyclopedic museums in countries such as Britain, France, and the United States, and warned against efforts to “narrow the focus” of their collections by “calls to repatriate objects.”

But much has changed since that self-confident statement. In 2003, the US Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York used an Egyptian national ownership law to convict Frederick Schultz, former president of the National Association of Dealers in Ancient, Oriental, and Primitive Art, for dealing in stolen art. Collectors and museums had long assumed that sweeping laws like Egypt’s—declaring all ancient heritage to belong to the state—would not be recognized in the United States; but the Schultz case demonstrated unequivocally that such laws can be used to designate stolen property in US courts. Around the same time, the horrific looting of the Iraq Museum in Baghdad brought intense public scrutiny on the international trade in ancient art.1

Then, in April 2005, Marion True, former curator of the Getty Museum, was indicted in Rome for allegedly taking part in a conspiracy to traffic in Italian antiquities. That relatively little of the extraordinary evidence in the case directly concerns True herself is beside the point: the investigation has touched nearly every major US museum, showing that each one had acquired objects that were likely plundered from Italian soil in recent decades. Since the True indictment, no fewer than five leading museums have turned over dozens of prized objects to Rome, conceding Italy to be their rightful owner: the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the Getty, the Princeton Museum of Art—and, in late November 2008, the Cleveland Museum of Art.

On top of all this, a further change has been occurring within the museums themselves. Since the early 1990s, directors and curators who had been trained according to the freer collecting practices of earlier decades, and who believed that museums were justified in acquiring objects of world importance even if their archaeological provenance was unknown, have been giving way to a younger generation who are sensitive to the squalid reputation of the antiquities market and to the growing complaints of field archaeologists about damage to sites by looters. Nowhere has the change been more pronounced than at the Getty itself. Despite having a collection of Greek, Roman, and Etruscan art that consists, to an overwhelming extent, of works of unknown origin acquired since 1970, its leadership has gone further, and sooner, than that of any of its large peers in renouncing the antiquities market.2

Still, this shift in values has not been everywhere embraced. James Cuno’s controversial defense of antiquities collecting, Who Owns Antiquity? Museums and the Battle Over Our Ancient Heritage, was circulating at AAMD meetings last spring even as its members were putting the new policy in final form. And Cuno has now edited a second volume, Whose Culture? The Promise of Museums and the Debate Over Antiquities, which includes essays by senior museum leaders and scholars who share in his skepticism—if not his single-minded fervor—about restricting the circulation of ancient works.3 Among them are Philippe de Montebello, the recently retired director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Neil MacGregor, the director of the British Museum, philosopher K. Anthony Appiah, classicist John Boardman, and cuneiform scholar David I. Owen.

In stressing the multiple meanings— aesthetic, textual, political, ritual—that an object may have, these contributors oppose the claim that art divorced from its archaeological setting is a cosa morta (“dead thing”), as an Italian cultural official described the Euphronios krater to de Montebello. “Few, I expect who have marveled at the scale and majesty of the Euphronios krater and the precision and elegance of line and its poignant depiction of a Homeric epic of the death of Sarpedon would concede that it is a cosa morta,” de Montebello writes.

Although having not been properly excavated, it is far from meaningless…. All great works of art have, in addition to their historical and other learned contexts, an aesthetic context as well.

Leading the charge, though, is Cuno himself. The director of the Art Institute of Chicago, Cuno is not quite old enough to belong to the earlier twentieth-century tradition of museum collecting. Nor has the Art Institute been a target in the recent restitution campaigns by Mediterranean nations. And yet, not only does he not share the younger generation’s changing attitude toward the antiquities market; he seems in many ways even less accommodating toward foreign governments than the old guard.


Who Owns Antiquity? is an impassioned argument for what Cuno calls the “cosmopolitan aspirations” of encyclopedic museums. By this he means not only collecting and showing art from every place and era, but also, and more crucially, the promotion of an essential kind of cultural pluralism, or, as Neil MacGregor puts it in an essay about the British Museum in WhoseCulture?, using art as “a way of creating a new kind of citizen for the world.” For by juxtaposing such disparate objects, Cuno reminds us, these institutions

direct attention to distant cultures, asking visitors to respect the values of others and seek connections between cultures. Encyclopedic museums promote the understanding of culture as always fluid, ever changing, ever influenced by new and strange things—evidence of the overlapping diversity of mankind.

Thus, Cuno writes, at the Art Institute of Chicago we may discover an exquisite ivory box that was used as a Christian reliquary in thirteenth-century Sicily, yet features an Arabic inscription; it was made from an elephant’s tusk likely found in southern Africa and brought to Sicily by “Muslim traders from the Swahili coast.” Such a work may in turn remind us of pieces in neighboring rooms—a carved ivory tusk from the nineteenth-century court of Benin, perhaps; or a fourteenth-century German monstrance—another kind of reliquary—consisting of gilt silver around a translucent vessel, the holder for the relic, that “was originally a perfume bottle made in Fatimid—Muslim—Egypt.”

But the book is less a discourse on the virtues of museums like Cuno’s than a polemic against cultural property laws that he believes are increasingly standing in their way. As a legal concept, “cultural property” can include almost any form of artistic or intellectual work deemed of national value by particular nations, and Cuno worries that cultural property laws have given some states vast powers over world art. The Italian government, for example, may forbid an Italian citizen from taking a Matisse or even a Jackson Pollock out of the country; China recently requested the US State Department to ban the import of all Chinese art created before 1911. (In a compromise reached shortly before George W. Bush left office, the US agreed to a more limited ban on Chinese objects created before the end of the Tang Dynasty, in AD 907.)

But Cuno’s primary concern is art and artifacts from the distant past. For Cuno, all the recent controversy about collecting “unprovenanced” antiquities—works that do not have a documented place and date of discovery and hence may likely have been looted—is a distraction. The more important question is whether collecting museums should be beholden to the national prerogatives of countries such as Italy, Turkey, and China, which invest the state with ownership of antiquities found within their borders, and forbid or severely limit their export.

Indeed, Cuno lays much of the responsibility for the accelerating destruction of archaeological sites to such nations. In the absence of legitimate ways to acquire antiquities, their categorical and unenforceable prohibitions have simply made the looting worse. And where they have succeeded in preserving sites and monuments, he maintains, their laws have just as often caused a “perversion” of cultural heritage for the purposes of national identity and parochial politics.

Thus, instead of encyclopedic museums dedicated to gathering and furthering knowledge about objects from many different parts of the world, most archaeological countries have “national” museums, whose mission, Cuno suggests, is to use artifacts found within their own modern boundaries to fill out a spurious national mythology: Etruscan pots (more often than not manufactured in Athens) are used to define Italianness; Sumerian sculptures to define Iraqiness, Hittite jewelry to define Turkishness, and so on. In many such cases, he argues, the modern populations have no historical connections with the ancient cultures whose objects are being collected.

As a result, we have arrived at a situation in which ancient heritage is “divided up and claimed by modern nation-states as theirs, the property of only some of the world’s people, made by their alleged ancestors for them and deprived of its rich diversity of sources and evidence of cultural influences.” From here, it is only a small further step to argue, as Cuno does, that cultural property laws may reinforce the worst tendencies of nationalism:

I do recognize that nationalistic feelings have bred beautiful music, poetry, and works of visual art…. But all too often they have also hardened into ideologies with roots in fear and hatred of the Other, often with racist affinities. They then become dangerous as rep- rehensible means of oppressing others, sources of vicious, even barbaric sectarian violence, persuading colossal numbers of people to lay down their own lives in an effort to kill others.

  1. 1

    Museum leaders were deeply troubled by the looting in Iraq and some trustees held meetings about it. In the months before the invasion, however, efforts by the American Council for Cultural Property (ACCP), a group whose members included museum professionals, collectors, and scholars, to warn the US government of the risks to archaeological sites centered around the threat from military strikes rather than the possibility of large-scale civilian looting. For their part, some archaeologists accused the ACCP of appealing to the State Department to establish a liberal antiquities market in post-Saddam Iraq, presumably to allow for a new outflow of antiquities to the United States. See Lawrence Rothfield, The Rape of Mesopotamia: Behind the Looting of the Iraq Museum (University of Chicago Press, 2009), p. 43.

  2. 2

    A process that began under Marion True herself. See my article “Treasure Hunt,” The New Yorker, December 17, 2007.

  3. 3

    The volume includes five essays based on contributions to “Museums and the Collecting of Antiquities: Past, Present, and Future,” a conference organized by Cuno and Timothy Potts and held in New York in May 2006, together with four additional essays reprinted from other publications, among them K. Anthony Appiah’s “Whose Culture Is It?,” which first appeared in these pages, February 9, 2006.

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