Tuesday, November 18, 2008

"Antiquities Wars": a misnomer?

Tomorrow's New York debate "Antiquities Wars: A Conversation About Loot and Legitimacy" has brought an extended comment from Dr Kwame Opoku. He suggests:
We are not involved in any war but in a dispute about heritage and ownership rights in an area where most of us agree that there has to be cooperation and understanding if we are to find acceptable solutions.
I thought that it would be interesting to trace the history of the term "Antiquities Wars".

One of the earliest uses of the phrase comes from 1984 (Gregory Jensen, "Melina Mercouri's demand for Elgin Marbles opens Pandora's box for world's art museums", UPI January 29, 2984). The context was the call for the return of the Parthenon marbles to Greece, though the term was used to describe the 19th century scramble for power over antiquities.
The most blatant plunder came in a nine-year ''antiquities war'' between Britain and France while Napoleon was ransacking Europe and Egypt to stock the Louvre Museum in Paris.
(For the context of such acquisitions see the recent study by Debbie Challis.)

Catherine Fox ("Emory's Roman exhibit calm as antiquities wars rage", The Atlanta Journal-Constitution August 18, 2006) used the phrase in a report on the loan exhibition "In Stabiano: Exploring the Ancient Seaside Villas of the Roman Elite". As Jasper Gaunt, the curator, commented:
"The goal is to bring great work to Atlanta," he says. "You can buy or borrow. If you can borrow 'Flora,' why buy?"
The report continued:
The recent repatriations of objects and the trials of collectors have had a big effect, Gaunt says. "The market has shrunk enormously. There are fewer dealers, which is a good thing. Auction houses are more circumspect. Documented objects are more expensive."

But Gaunt is not about to give up acquiring objects for the Carlos collection. In June, for example, he bought an important sculpture of Aphrodite.

"I still love the hunt," he says, "and there is plenty to hunt for."
The term "Antiquities Wars" switched from the classical worlds to the New World in February 2008 with an editorial in The Santa Fe New Mexican ("Our view: a promising victory in antiquities wars", February 12, 2008). This commented on the raids on "a private gallery and four museums in Southern California".
Buyers of the illicit goods, now there are laws and treaties against looting, tend to be well-heeled collectors who keep the stuff out of sight. But not always, as the raid on those museums indicates: The day is fast fading when such institutions can buy on the sly, then take on superior airs for their role in educating and entertaining the great unwashed.
The present use of the term "Antiquities Wars" seems to have been used by the members of the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD). It appears in a short report "The Antiquities Wars" in The Salem News (Beverly, Massachusetts) June 13, 2008.
The executive director of the Peabody Essex Museum made news last week as a spokesman for a group of museum directors who announced tough new guidelines for collecting archaeological treasures. That's a hot topic in the museum world and has led to international fights over the ownership of valuable art objects.

Monroe was chairman of a subcommittee that drafted guidelines for the Association of Art Museum Directors aimed at discouraging the looting of archaeological treasures.
This was linked to the AAMD report "Acquisition of Archaeological Materials and Ancient Art" (see comment). Lee Rosenbaum then presented two pieces on the "Antiquities Wars" on Culturegrrl (I, II).

But Dr Opaku is right. We need to find an alternative to "Antiquities Wars".

How about the "Antiquities Scandal"?

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