To the victor in the cultural-property wars belong the spoils. But now that American museums have acceded to demands for restitution, it's time to ask not only what "universal museums" can do for antiquities' countries of origin, but also what the source countries can do for the world's encyclopedic museums."Universal museums" can and do hold archaeological material derived from scientific excavations. If we take some British examples, museums hold excavated material from British work in Cyprus, Crete, the Cyclades and Laconia. These items have inspired and trained new generations of archaeologists.
But the returns from North America have not been about objects derived from scientific excavations. They are objects that have surfaced on the antiquities market without a documented history. And P. Watson and C. Todeschini (see review by Gill and Chippindale) have demonstrated in some detail the route by which these items were ripped from their archaeological contexts to provide spoils for what Rosenbaum and others call "universal museums".
"Universal museums" have a place: but not at the expense of destroying unrecorded archaeological sites. And that is what lies at the heart of the issue about the recent returns to Italy. Wherever the Sarpedon krater resides, we will never known its precise last resting place and the complete archaeological assemblage.
So these returns are symbolic of unethical curatorial behaviour that was indifferent to the material and intellectual consequences.
In the bad old days, acquirers of antiquities knew, or at least suspected, that what they were doing was problematic. What's changed now, thanks to aggressive enforcement by the source countries, is that it's become much harder to get away with it.Are curators really this reformed? If there is a new spirit of transparency, why are the previous histories of objects from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and Princeton not in the public domain (as far as I know)? Which other North American museums and private collections hold material sold to them by, say, Robin Symes or Robert Hecht? And what about European and Japanese collections? And why are antiquities still being presented as a good investment? I suspect the requests for returns will continue.