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Cultural Nationalism and Cultural Pragmatism

Derek Fincham and Paul Barford have drawn attention to a new paper by Matthew R. Hoffman, 'Cultural pragmatism: a new approach to the international movement of antiquities', Iowa Law Review 95 (2010) 665-94 [download].

Hoffman notes "antiquities have made their way from archeological sites and local collections to private and government collections" (667). There is a huge difference between acquiring material from "old" nineteenth century collections or buying recently-surfaced antiquities on the market. The case of the returning antiquities from major North American museums (Boston MFA; Cleveland Museum of Art; The J. Paul Getty Museum; New York MMA; Princeton University Art Museum) has shown quite clearly that since 1970 (the date of the UNESCO Convention) major institutions have been acquiring material that appears to have been removed by unscientific methods from their archaeological contexts.
  • Gill, David W.J. and Chippindale, Christopher (2006), 'From Boston to Rome: reflections on returning antiquities', International Journal of Cultural Property, 13 (3), 311-31.
  • Gill, David W.J. and Chippindale, Christopher (2007), 'From Malibu to Rome: further developments on the return of antiquities', International Journal of Cultural Property, 14 (2), 205-40.
  • Gill, David W.J. (2009), 'Homecomings: learning from the return of antiquities to Italy', in Noah Charney (ed.), Art and Crime: exploring the dark side of the art world (Santa Barbara: Praeger), 13-25.
How does Hoffman explain the 120 or antiquities that have returned to Italy? Or, indeed, the smaller number that have been returned to Greece? Perhaps Hoffman should read:
  • Watson, Peter (1997), Sotheby's, the inside story (London: Bloomsbury).
  • Watson, Peter and Todeschini, Cecilia (2006), The Medici conspiracy: the illicit journey of looted antiquities from Italy's tomb raiders to the world's great museums (New York: Public Affairs).
  • Gill, David W.J. and Chippindale, Christopher (2007), 'The illicit antiquities scandal: what it has done to classical archaeology collections', American Journal of Archaeology, 111 (3), 571-74.
Hoffman confuses two separate issues: objects that left their countries of origin generations ago (e.g. the Parthenon marbles), and objects that have been ripped from their contexts in a post-1970 world (e.g. the Sarpedon krater).

Hoffman discuss the nature of the debate, commenting, "Many archeologists support these strict measures, believing that suppressing the demand for artifacts will reduce the number of undocumented artifacts in circulation" (671). In fact the recent returns to Italy are, I would suggest, having an impact on the market. Ricardo Elia's study of Apulian pottery could have been discussed against the decreasing number of Apulian pots entering the market in recent years.

  • Elia, Ricardo J. (2001), 'Analysis of the looting, selling, and collecting of Apulian red-figure vases: a quantitative approach', in Neil Brodie, Jennifer Doole, and Colin Renfrew (eds.), Trade in illicit antiquities: the destruction of the world's archaeological heritage (Cambridge: McDonald Institute), 145-53.
Hoffman underestimates the impact of the "Medici conspiracy" and the returns to Italy. Major museums can no longer ignore the issue of recently-surfaced antiquities. But Hoffman suggests:
With their current collections and future ability to obtain new artifacts at risk, the American museum community needed to take action before more source countries chose broad patrimony laws over bilateral agreements and other forms of cooperation. Also, the potential stigma of criminal liability that could attach to existing collections threatened to undermine the public’s trust (685).
The AAMD's decision to embrace the 1970 date for making decisions over acquisitions was not one made out of pragmatism as Hoffman would want us to believe. It was to make sure that there were no more nasty surprises over acquisitions made with a lack of rigour.

Hoffman's discussion of Japan's policy on cultural property (689-90) could have done with a discussion of the European antiquities in the Miho Museum. How did this newly established museum come to acquire recently surfaced antiquities? Does this really reflect "a balanced framework" (692)? This undermines the central part of Hoffman's conclusion:
The classification system of the Japanese Law for the Protection of Cultural Properties offers a model to implement this new doctrine and to combine the resources of American museums and source countries to more effectively protect culturally significant artifacts, while permitting a limited, licit market to both reduce illicit trade and provide additional financing through registration and taxation (694).
Hoffman's article has failed to engage with the current debate over "the international movement of antiquities".

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