ON LOOTED, STOLEN and LOST ART

by Noa Ishaki

 

Describing the world of antiquities, the right to display and own them as well as their journeys to great museums, Sharon Waxman divides her book Loot: Tomb robbers, treasure and the Great Museum Debate into four sections. The first one deals with Egypt and its treasures, which is followed by Turkey and specifically the Lydian treasure, the Parthenon Marbles in the British museum and their request for return to Greece, and lastly the case of Italy and the Getty Museum and the case against its former curator Marion True.

 

Writing in the style of investigative journalism, the first section on Egypt reads well and is captivating, making one feel terrible about how horrifically antiquities were removed from their places of origin, with dynamite and great force, leaving the remaining site looking maimed. Yet at the same time given the great attention and care they receive in their western museums with access to so many more, it might also seem like they are receiving the respect that they are due.

 

Waxman moves almost seamlessly to the section about Turkey, which then delves into the issue of how, when these antiquities are returned to be displayed in their places of origin they would be cared for, or rather not. Visiting a provincial museum in Turkey, which does not receive many visitors, she recounts the deplorable condition of the museum that housed the returned Lydian hoard, with its most important piece stolen because of the help of the museum director. She in a way asks one of the most important questions that needs to be answered in determining the return of antiquities from great museums: Will returned treasures receive the same care, security and importance placed on them once they are returned to countries with instabilities? Given that the book was written before the Egyptian Summer, and the downturn of the Greek economy and the corruption that takes place in Turkey and in some way in Italy, one wonders even more.

 

At this point I have to admit that I have always been on the sidelines on repatriation, being quite indecisive, except for one case and that is the case of the Parthenon Marbles. I believe they should be returned to Greece even though I always believed they were obtained legally with a firman, a decree, from the Ottoman Sultan who then ruled over Greece. I was surprised to read on Loot: Tomb Robbers, Treasure and the Great Museum Debate that the firman in fact, did not specifically authorize the removal of the marbles to be transported. The first time I went to Athens was when I was 13, and having seen many antique Greek ruins in Greece and Turkey already, I was sadly disappointed because of the damage and the looting that had occurred. Now with the new museum built at the foot of the site with views of the Acropolis from inside the museum, there is no denying they should be there. Even when the country’s economy is not close to recovery at the moment.

 

The last section which is on the case of looted antiquities from Italy and Marion True, then-curator of the Getty Museum, reads like some notes that were put together and did not follow a logical pattern in the way events transpired in a logical manner. This section brings up the issue of antique dealers and collectors and their role in the looting albeit indirectly, and the looted antiquities which are then legitimized by museums through their donations. But I will overlook Waxman’s different writing style because she brings the issue to our day. Her previous sections deal with objects in great encyclopedic museums in major cities that were removed from their source when the world was ruled by empires that don’t exist today. Through the case of Italy and the Getty we come to our common day as she presents evidence that the looting still continues. We can stop museums from acquiring, but demand by private collectors will be supplied by the dealers and tomb robbers. I would say this section makes one think the most about how to preserve cultural patrimonies.

 

The question: “Why is this here?”

 

Up until the last section, Loot: Tomb Robbers, Treasure and the Great Museum Debate it feels like Waxman does not have a strong position as to where she stands on the issue of repatriation. She writes passionately about how the Zodiac Ceiling or the Parthenon marbles were removed violently, leaving the originals ruined; how they have become symbols of an elitism that comes from colonialism and imperialism, while at the same stressing the destruction that has been averted by having had them in western museums, with the care and attention and the accessibility by many more than the small number of visitors in situ, of the inability to care and secure the collections in economically and politically unstable source countries, and the lack of interest or affinity by the citizens of those countries. In the fourth section she introduces another dimension through the case of the Getty that the looting still continues and repatriation will come to haunt museums, and that they should not acquire objects with sketchy provenances.

 

For the first three sections Waxman proposes a solution of collaboration between museums and source countries and that it should start with an apology. According to Waxman, this is a good start which then can lead to an agreement where objects can be owned by source countries, with clear labeling about their place of origins and their history of their existence in that museum. And if they need to be returned – and not all of them will have to be returned- to the source country, then the great museums should help them out both scholarly and financially. Which makes sense. If I had adopted child and somehow found out that the child I cared for for years has to be returned to his biological mother I would want to be involved in his life and make sure that he is taken care of and do all that I can help, and certainly not completely abandon. So her solution seems to be that decisions must be made on the legal basis, yes, but all most be done to ensure that they are well taken care of there too.

 

Waxman, tying in the last section of Loot: Tomb Robbers, Treasure and the Great Museum Debate on the present day looting ends her book with a visit to an antiques dealer in Switzerland which has objects on sale with no clear provenance, which is to say that it doesn’t end with museums. Even when museums stop acquiring antiquities and return them back to their countries of origin there will always be private collectors (in fact the Iraqi and Syrian antiquities are claimed to be collected by collectors from oil-rich countries). I would say the only issue Waxman fails to mention is how to stop the looting, deter people from robbing tombs and digging for ruins, and from collecting antiquities.

 

What everything shows though is that there has to be a candid and honest discussion on all sides, to remove the idea about nationality, both colonial superiority and source countries’ feeling of inferiority, and show a clear care for the culture, and then speak about world heritage as well as educating all world citizens about the history of civilizations and the common heritage. While Waxman does not explicitly say so, this is at least what I understand.

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© 2015 by NOA ISHAKI