Skip to main content

"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"?


Popular posts from this blog

Marble bull's head from the temple of Eshmun

Excavations at the temple of Eshmun in Lebanon recovered a marble bull's head. It is now suggested that it was this head, apparently first published in 1967, that was placed on loan to New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art (Tom Mashberg, "Met Museum Turns Over Another Relic With Disputed Past to Prosecutors", New York Times August 1, 2017 ). The head is reported to have been handed over to the Manhattan district attorney after a request was received from the Lebanese authorities.

It is suggested that the head may have been looted from an archaeological storage area at Byblos in the 1980s during the Lebanese civil war. Mashberg has rehearsed the recent collecting history:
The owners of the bull’s head, Lynda and William Beierwaltes of Colorado, say they have clear title to the item and have sued Manhattan prosecutors for its return.  The Beierwaltes bought the head from a dealer in London in 1996 for more than $1 million and then sold it to another collector, Michael …

The Toledo skyphos and a Swiss private collection

The Attic red-figured skyphos attributed to the Kleophon painter in the Toledo Museum of Art (inv. 1982.88) is now coming under further scrutiny following the research of Dr Christos Tsirogiannis. The skyphos shows Hephaistos returning to Olympos.

Tsirogiannis has identified what appears to be this skyphos in five photographs in the Medici Dossier. The museum acknowledged that the skyphos had resided in a 'private Swiss collection'. Tsirogiannis suggests that this is probably a reference to Medici.

Enquiries to the museum by Tsirogiannis elicited the information that the skyphos had been acquired from Nicholas Koutoulakis (although that information does not appear on the museum's online catalogue).

The curatorial team at the Toledo Museum of Art will, no doubt, be contacting the Italian authorities to discuss the future residence of the skyphos.

For further discussion of the Toledo Museum of Art on LM see here.

Tsirogiannis, C. 2017. "Nekyia: Museum ethics an…

Metropolitan Museum of Art hands over Paestan krater

In May 2014 I commented on a Paestan krater acquired by New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art after it had been identified by Dr Christos Tsirogiannis in photographic images seized from Giacomo Medici. Tsirogiannis published his full concerns in the Journal of Art Crime in 2014, but it has taken a further three years for the museum to respond.

The krater showing Dionysos in a hand-drawn cart was purchased in 1989 from the Bothmer Purchase Fund (details from the Museum's website, inv. 1989.11.4). The krater surfaced through Sotheby's New York in June 1989.

It is unclear who consigned the krater to Sotheby's New York.

It has now been revealed that the krater has been handed over to the US authorities after a warrant had been issued (Tom Mashberg, "Ancient Vase Seized From Met Museum on Suspicion It Was Looted", New York Times July 31, 2018).

It appears that the museum did make an attempt to resolve the case in December 2016. Mashberg notes:
The Met, for its par…