Aaron Applbaum started the debate with a review of historic acquisitions ("Keep the artifacts as they are", April 12, 2001). The focus is on monuments such as the Parthenon marbles, although there is mention of more recent claims on Egyptian material in European collections. Applbaum resorts to the argument of precedent.
Essentially, returning these artifacts would be doubly detrimental: it would set a precedent that could lead to the liquidation of the collections of museums, and, by decentralizing these important artifacts, would leave the world culturally poorer. Returning artifacts would place them in geographical and cultural ghettos, whereby Greek sculptures could only be viewed in Greece, or Egyptian mummies in Egypt.Yet Applbaum does not seek to differentiate between these older acquisitions and objects that surfaced since the 1970 UNESCO Convention.
Lily Yu (who held an internship with Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities) has responded with a more nuanced piece ("The obligation to repatriate", April 20, 2011).
While the majority of curators and collectors purchase conscientiously, checking for legal export documents and clean provenances, many do not. When a looted item is purchased, even if the transaction occurs in good faith and with due diligence, there is an ethical and legal obligation to repatriate.The one thing that the Medici Conspiracy has taught us is that museums, private collectors, dealers and auction-houses turned a blind eye to significant looting to supply the market. Yu reminds us of the position of Princeton in this sad tale. Indeed it needs to be remembered that Italy did not insist on the return of every object identified by photographs and documentation. (It should be noted that Princeton has not disclosed the collecting histories of the objects unlike Boston's MFA or the J. Paul Getty Museum.)
Yu closes in a strong way:
In this postcolonial world, we must recognize the sovereignty of other states not only in self-government but also in the management of their cultural patrimonies. While recognizing the importance of the legal acquisition of antiquities by museums, we cannot forget our obligations to those countries that have been plundered of their pasts, and we ought, where it is legally or ethically required of us, to repatriate — to render unto Egypt what is Egypt’s.
Will Princeton be resolving the issue over the Almagià antiquities?
And what about disclosing the collecting history for the silver plaque with a Nike?