Who Should Own the World’s Antiquities?

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

Musée du Louvre, Paris
Patera with Chariot Hunt , fifteenth–fourteenth century BC, discovered together with another gold bowl on the Acropolis of Ugarit (modern-day Ras Shamra, Syria) by the French archaeologist Claude Schaeffer in 1933. According to the practice of partage, or division of finds, the bowl, or patera, went to the Louvre and the second vessel to the National Museum in Aleppo. The patera, which shows both Egyptian and Mesopotamian influences, was on view in ‘Beyond Babylon: Art, Trade, and Diplomacy in the Second Millennium BC,’ a recent exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.


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…

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