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Learning from the Gaps in the Display Cases

Drake Bennett ("Finders Keepers", Boston Globe, February 10, 2008) has reflected on the return of antiquities to Italy from the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
These returned objects are only the most visible recent fruits of a powerful movement aimed at moving some of the world's most prominent ancient treasures from the hands of foreign museums and collectors back to the so-called source countries.
Drake continues:
These governments argue that to allow such objects to remain abroad as trophies only encourages the continued pillage of their national patrimony. Their position has won broad moral support and increasingly become the norm among academic archeologists, who see ancient objects as historic artifacts inseparable from their place of discovery.
In other words, does the return of antiquities to source countries stop looting? I suspect not.

But what it does do is send a very clear signal to museums and private collectors that acquisition policies and patterns have to change (and that includes loans). I doubt that institutions such as the Boston Museum of Fine Arts or the J. Paul Getty Museum will be in a rush to accept as purchases, gifts, bequests or loans, objects that have no secure documentation prior to 1970.

Drake balances the return with views from James Cuno (see my "James Cuno on antiquities"):
What's at stake ... is the world's right to broad and general access to its ancient heritage.
What is at stake is the loss of archaeological heritage and scientific knowledge - all for the pursuit of "beautiful objects" to display in public museums of art or to place on the sideboards of private collectors.

The reported claim by Cuno that such moves to return antiquities "present an existential threat to great "encyclopedic" museums like the MFA or Metropolitan Museum, places that provide a unique opportunity to see the full breadth and diversity of the world's cultural history in one place" is perhaps misleading.

Have the Italian authorities asked the Museum of Fine Arts for its complete collection of South Italian pottery? No.

Has the Greek Government asked the Metropolitan Museum of Art for the return of its entire collection of archaic Athenian sculpture? No.

And nobody is expecting them to do so.

Archaeologists have as their focus recent acquisitions (and loans) because so often they are derived from destroying archaeological deposits such as graves ... and that is happening now.

But Cuno is in a difficult position. He is clearly being tipped as a possible successor to Philippe de Montebello and it is a matter for public record that one of the people on the search committee is a private collector who has just handed over ten of her antiquities to Italy (even if she is still unable to issue a press release about it). We can hardly expect Cuno to condemn the actions of private individuals or indeed museums.

Drake also quotes de Montebello about the benefits of the movement of antiquities across national frontiers. There is a big difference between the transport of Athenian figure-decorated pottery from Greece to Etruria in the sixth century BCE, and the transfer of looted antiquities from Etruscan graves to (say) Japanese museum display-cases in the early third millennium CE.

Drake does make the archaeological point:
For archeologists, the problem with looting is not simply that it is stealing, but that it destroys archeological sites, erasing irreplaceable information. A funerary jug scrubbed clean and presented for sale to a museum has far less to offer an archeologist than one found in the ground, where everything from its location and positioning to its contents and the composition of the soil around it - in short, its context - can offer clues to the sort of culture that made and preserved it.
He ends with the two contrasting positions:
  • Cuno who "would like to see a loosening of those laws to allow for a larger licit trade in antiquities" (and see my "Can there be a 'licit' trade in antiquities?").
  • Archaeologists who pose the question, "Why not ... treat antiquities the way we treat African ivory, as something that, with a few exceptions, can't be bought and sold at all?"

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