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International Treasure

December 9, 2010

I finished Sharon Waxman’s Loot yesterday, and it was both interesting and a bit of a slog.  Waxman is a reporter, and much of the book reads like a series of excruciatingly detailed “special reports” on museum curators, board members, art dealers and government officials and their tangled relationships with each other and with art works of dubious provenance.  Every detail of every letter and phone call and financial transaction is painstakingly documented, as one would expect from a former employee of the Paper of Record, which doesn’t always make for gripping reading if you’re not an attorney.  Still, there’s no arguing that laying it all out is necessary to let the reader determine who is “guilty” of what.

She gives a grand history of looting, described as the systematic removal (and sometimes in the process destruction) of historic and artistic treasures from their country and place of origin, “depatriating” them into national treasures of the conquering nation, or private treasures of rich collectors.  She starts with the story of Napoleon in Egypt (with an acknowledgement that booty has always been a factor in the history of conquest).  Egypt’s tombs had long been robbed, but never on this scale before – no longer a question of snatching the gold and running as “traditional” tomb robbers did, the new “robbers” took whole temples, ceilings, walls.  However, she doesn’t flinch from the fact that what was taken was often taken from sites buried under tons of sand, or used as goat huts or, worst of all, which were being taken apart bit by bit by the natives as the stones were used for other buildings, and that in the process of destroying the village, British and French and American archaeologists and even outright thieves were saving it from decay or destruction.  Moreover, it was bad ol’ Western Civilization that unearthed and decoded the Rosetta Stone, unlocking the mysteries of Egyptian hieroglyphics.

There’s a lot in the book about how museums have, admittedly shamefully, “erased” the stain of their dubious acquisitions by simply omitting those details from the public record attached to the works.  “Acquired c. 1812 by divine right of conquest” doesn’t have quite that high museum tone one is accustomed to on the placards accompanying the work.  And she lays bare the history of the great museums, the Met and Getty and Louvre and British Museum, and their lack of scruple about acquiring not only pieces extracted during various imperiums, but those that may have been much more recently dug up and smuggled out of their country of origin.

Waxman gives both sides of the critical issue the book represents, which is essentially, “Who owns culture?”  Focusing on the nations and art of Egypt, Turkey, Greece and Italy (i.e. the homes of “antiquity”), she lays out the case that finders keepers, for all its venality, may often be the best conclusion.  First world countries and our institutions argue that we may have stolen them, but that at least they are safe, and available to the general public as part of world culture and not locked in a billionaire’s vault or worse.

Turkey managed to reclaim many historic treasures through legal action and public clamor…but displays them in museums which receive less than a thousand visitors a year, museums with poor or no security which themselves are looted by their own employees.  Egypt has competing teams working in the same museums, both poorly equipped with shoddy computers, using different systems to catalog a vast collection of antiquities in various states of decay even as those antiquities “disappear” with some regularity.  Greece has built a gorgeous and fitting home for the Elgin Marbles which answered the key charge against the nation by England, which was that they simply weren’t equipped to take care of the sculptures…though this book was written before the recent economic collapse of that nation, which certainly endangered financing for the museum.

“Repatriating” works is often more a matter of politics than anything else – the flag-waving actions of office-holders who want to be seen as scoring points against imperialist dogs by taking back what was taken long ago, even if neither they not their citizens care much about the actual works of art.  And while Waxman discusses the dangers in second and third world countries posed by corruption and theft, she doesn’t address what may come to be the most pressing issue.  An interview with the son of noted (or notorious, depending on where you work) archaeologist Zahi Hawass illuminates this.  I can never get my head around the cognitive dissonance that allows a person to train as a medical doctor, and yet believe that women should wear the veil and that Armageddon is around the corner (“It’s all written in the Koran”) and that the End of Days is being brought about and the Jews are to blame for everything, etc. etc. (I would love to see an Al Queda “bobblehead,” though instead of its head, its arm, finger pointing accusingly, would bobble up and down like the “drinking bird,” just as it does in pretty much every video released by Islamic fanatics, that didactic emphasis as metronomic and monotonous and predictable as the message itself.)

The Smithsonian magazine had a good article this month on the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan by the Taliban.  These 1,500 year old statues were destroyed because the Taliban decreed them to be “idolatrous” and “un-Islamic.”

[T]he Taliban—with the help of Arab munitions experts—used artillery shells and high explosives to destroy both figures. A Hazara construction worker I’ll call Abdul, whom I met outside an unfinished mosque in the hills above Bamiyan, told me that the Taliban had conscripted him and 30 other Hazaras to lay plastic explosives on the ground beneath the larger Buddha’s feet. It took three weeks to bring down the statue, Abdul told me. Then "the Taliban celebrated by slaughtering nine cows."

This is an issue Waxman may have been loathe to confront, but which must be considered:  what if we repatriate all these treasures to Turkey and Egypt, and the very real possibility in both nations of a hard-line Islamic government comes to pass?  We are looking not only at the possible transference of works of art from nation to nation or museum or collector, in or out of the hands of “rightful owners,” but at the possibility of their complete destruction.  In Islamic theology, portrayals of the human form are in themselves idolatry.  What would happen to the bust of Nefertiti if it was returned to Egypt by Germany and such a government took power?  How easy to smash it would it be to people who dedicated three weeks, loads of money and manpower, and imported munitions experts to destroy a single work of art?

Who does own “Culture?”  We are all a product of the knowledge of the ancient world, and our ability to access the original sources gives us a connection to it that deepens our understanding of ourselves, and allows us to continue to build a civilized world on those foundations.  Civilization has been lost before, the knowledge and art of Greece and Rome buried for a dark religious millennia, and the cost to human progress was incalculable.  It’s not a risk worth taking again, no matter how many hard feelings result from it.  Regardless of the hands that do the work, “Culture” must be owned by those who will protect it.

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